a passage from “Another Country,” by James Baldwin

This is the end of Chapter 1. Rufus Scott, a young black jazz musician, is meandering through Manhattan – from Times Square down to the Village, then by subway up to 125th Street. Revisiting scenes from his life, meeting with some of his friends for the last time. He has given up. Despair has finally beaten him.

…Suddenly he knew that he was never going home anymore.

The train began to move, half-empty now; and with each stop it became lighter; soon the white people who were left looked at him oddly. He felt their stares but he felt far away from them. You took the best. So why not take the rest? He got off at the station named for the bridge built to honor the father of his country.

And walked up the steps, into the streets, which were empty. Tall apartment buildings, lightless, loomed against the dark sky and seemed to be watching him, seemed to be pressing down on him. The bridge was nearly over his head, intolerably high; but he did not yet see the water. He felt it, he smelled it. He thought how he had never before understood how an animal could smell water. But it was over there, past the highway, where he could see the speeding cars.

Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire.

He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, You bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain’t I your baby, too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and his nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down into the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be cold.

He was black and the water was black.

He lifted himself by his hands on the rail, lifted himself as high as he could, and leaned far out. The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed, Why? Why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered, I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over, head down, the wind, the stars, the lights, the water, all rolled together, all right. He felt a shoe fly off behind him, there was nothing around him, only the wind, all right, you motherfucking Godalmighty bastard, I’m coming to you.

thinking of James Baldwin tonight

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Baldwin17©2012 Mark B. Anstendig

Growing up, I read his book of two longer pieces on race in America, The Fire Next Time, and then the novel Another Country. I was seized by his intelligence, integrity, and passion. The essays sizzled and sparked with the energy of prophetic rage; the novel was unlike anything I’d ever read. I went on to appreciate other essays and other novels – Another Country remains my favorite of the latter.

He will pop into my head when I find myself contemplating the display of moral courage in tumultuous times. No one in the ’60s was more eloquent on the subject of racialism in the US, yet his open bisexuality also exposed him to attack by black political allies – the Panthers of course being famously as unsupportive of alternative masculinities as of feminism.

Searching for photos of him to add to this post I came across an interesting interview with the photographer Sedat Pakay who was a close friend of Baldwin’s in the ’60s. Pakay had met him in Turkey just out of high school (Baldwin spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Istanbul and France). There are a few of Pakay’s photos of Baldwin in Turkey there, and a lot more here.

Having begun publishing in the mid-’50s, by the mid-’60s Baldwin had become a famous public literary and activist figure, in constant demand as speaker and debater – one of the reasons for his frequent sojourns in Europe was simply to enable him to write sustainedly. It’s still startling to realize that Another Country, with its panoply of biracial and bisexual relationships, was published in 1962.

Today his reputation remains strong and there are continual appreciations of him, for example a lovely recent one in the New York Review of Books by Darryl Pinckney (whose partner is the English poet James Fenton, great friend of the late Christopher Hitchens). At the same time he seems rather less well-known today than ten or fifteen years ago – hence this modest mini-appreciation of my own.

BaldwinInIstanbul

BaldwinOutsideTurkishSodaShop

1964PortraitOfBaldwinThese three photos copyright Sedat Pakay.