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Critical Essay by Sondra A. O'Neale
SOURCE: "Fathers, Gods, and Religion: Perceptions of Christianity and Ethnic Faith in James Baldwin," in Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, G. K. Hall & Co., 1988, pp. 125-43.
In the following essay, O'Neale "explores the complexities of Baldwin's concepts of fatherhood and how they impinge on his search—for a sympathetic Father/God—an odyssey that he deliberately identifies as the collective historic experience of the race and its artists."
In a 1965 television interview for the BBC, British author Colin MacInnes said to James Baldwin: "You spoke just now of the soul, the soul of the black man, the soul of the white man. I never have been able to make out, Jimmy, whether you are or are not a religious writer. Does the concept of God mean something to you? Are you a believer in any sense, or not?" As he has done so often when people have tried to pin him down to traditional modes of religious persuasion, Baldwin answered MacInnes in ambiguities based on his own redefinitions of "the church as church," salvation as that which "we must do to save each other," and love as that which is not passive but "something active, more like a fire, like the wind."1 Perhaps not realizing that Baldwin's "fire-wind-energy" simile alludes to Acts 2, where it is recorded that the Holy Spirit came down "like a violent, rushing wind and tongues as of fire rested on seventy fearful disciples,"2 MacInnes did not steer Baldwin toward acknowledging the debt that his literature owes to a deep intellectual contemplation of black America's centuries-old struggle to formulate a Christian faith that would assuage and reconstitute the evil-oriented identity that white Christian culture had imposed upon them (i.e., interpretations of the Cain and Ham curses and interpolations of the significance of skin color, predestination, heathenism, sin, and hell).3 Nor did MacInnes acknowledge that Baldwin's relationship to what the critic called "religion"—presumably the traditional European-centered view that is the basis of American Protestantism: belief in a God whose holiness is imbued in puritanical white; a written word that calls for redemptive purging of nonpure, vis-à-vis nonwhite, phenomena from His world; and an orthodox, spiritless, liturgical form keeping strict legalistic step with a deterministic force that assures white believers of spiritual, political, and economic superiority—is, like that of all black American writers since 1760, an inherently different idea of religion. On the surface one cannot ascertain whether or not Baldwin is a "religious writer" because his works do not reflect the traditional treatment of Christianity in black American literature. Instead, Baldwin examines the enigmas of human affections absent in Christian professors: the failure of the Christian God to thwart the persistent onslaught of His African children; and the insistence of those children to forge a "normal" dependent interaction with that God. These witnesses are empirical evidences of God in Baldwin's world, and he exploits them to excess so that he can mold a composite God, discover His personality, and fathom His intentions toward black people.
Although scholarship has touched upon the recurrent father-son motif in Baldwin's works,4 there has been little discussion of those images for an understanding of his (and black America's) search for God and for an iconography that is not totally and suicidally antipathetic to the dominant culture. Baldwin often codifies his variable perceptions of a puritanical, unloving God as a woman-mother (e.g., Margaret Alexander in Amen Corner); however, his use of female characters and feminine symbolism to conceptualize these possibilities is a study in itself. This essay explores the multifarious complexities of Baldwin's concepts of fatherhood and how they impinge on his search—for a sympathetic Father/God—an odyssey that he deliberately identifies as the collective historic experience of the race and its artists.
Indeed, a close critical and theological exegesis—that includes traditional religious consciousness in the canon of black American literature—of Baldwin's writings reveals these themes and gives credence to what is already suspected: that more than the heritage of any other black American writer, Baldwin's works illustrate the schizophrenia of the black American experience with Christianity. Much of the symbolism, language, archetypal rhythm, and thematic call for justice in his essays are so steeped in Christian ethics that his readers may become deafened to the tragicomic Christian pathos that is agonizing at the heart of the Baldwin message. Agonizing because, in ways similar to those of the transformed biblical disciples, the experiential anointing and ethereal vision that fourteen-year-old Baldwin received on the threshing floor of a Harlem storefront church in 1938 is at constant warfare with the unremitting oppression he receives from the world. When he sought relief in art, the divisiveness of this apparently irreconcilable dichotomy dominated his world view, his theology, and his writing. By that time, however, Baldwin also knew that by wrestling with that dichotomous angel in the public arena of his own written word, he was unveiling the agony of simultaneous disappointment and hope in the psyche of the race. That agony is evident in the earliest offerings to the canon of black American literature. Even in the mid-eighteenth century, Africans enslaved in America, while sincerely acknowledging their own conversions to Christianity, nonetheless deplored the white man's use of the same Bible both to convert and to enslave them. They also haltingly revealed their various inabilities to reach satisfactory faith-embracing conclusions (or at least to express them in a manner palatable to doubting black readers) on such doctrines as color symbolism; predeterminism; the infinite, omnipotent sovereign will of God; the Old Testament curses placed on Cain and Ham, presumably in perpetuity; and the New Testament reenslavement of Philemon.5 For instance, in his poem "A Dialogue Between the Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant" eighteenth-century New York slave, poet, and essayist Jupiter Hammon, the first black to publish in America, craftily tells his religious master that he cannot follow him for life's guide and example because the master himself is not a true Christian; yet he is reduced to telling his slave audience in a sermon, "As Black and despised as we are," that nevertheless, God, "Our Father," will save "us" (i.e., from hell and slavery—concepts merged as one in the literature up to the 1870s) if "we" obediently trust in Christ. Hammon promised that this same God will also eventually judge (i.e., in eternity) the white man for his unjust behavior.6 But Hammon's faith was firm. His admissions were not to engender doubt but to establish belief.
Phillis Wheatley continued the tensions of faith in, among other salient poems, her famed poetic lines, "Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train."7 Other black poets, essayists, and narrative authors of the period, such as Briton Hammon, Olandah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, John Marrant, and George Moses Horton—all slaves—expressed themselves in similar fashion.8 In the nineteenth century, freed or escaped slaves, such as David Walker, J. W. C. Pennington, James Whitfield, Nat Turner (who led a slave revolt based on his faith in the righteous judgment of the Old Testament God), Sojourner Truth, William and Ellen Craft, Frances E. W. Harper, and, most prominently, Frederick Douglass, expressed complete faith in the reality of the conversion experience, in the inerrant totality of Scripture, and in the absolute love and fatherhood of their God.9 While their stance as freed men and women was more militant than that of enslaved writers of the earlier period, their militancy involved a clear distinction between Christianity as they knew it and Christianity as it was practiced in the white world. Their faith in God, as reflected in the literature, was unswerving, and their relationship with Him could not be violated by injurious whites.10 In the epilogue of his shorter Autobiography, Douglass clearly distinguishes between black Christian faith and white Christian practice:
What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.11
In the secularized Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, God is either absent from artistic expression or mentioned (i.e., as the saving grace and artistic folk source of the black church) with reverence. Doubt or rejection is for an unredeemed, oppressive society. Representative works include James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Langston Hughes's "Cross," "Bound No'th Blue," and "Brass Spittoons," and the third section of Jean Toomer's Cane, with the wise, though blind, preacher, Father John.12 Perhaps the most cogent example of the black American writer's slight but expanding distancing from traditional racial concepts of God in that period occurs in a poem, "Yet Do I Marvel," by Baldwin's high school teacher Countee Cullen (Baldwin attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx from 1938 to 1942, during which time Cullen was employed as a teacher and supervisor of the school magazine, the Magpie, of which Baldwin was editor and to which he contributed):13
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,14
And did he stoop to quibble could tell why
Inscrutable His ways, are, and immune
What awful brain compels His awful hand,
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
These were Baldwin's black literary progenitors, in whose works he was well read. In their volume entitled Dialogue, he tells Nikki Giovanni:
Now I can see what I own to Richard [Wright] and what I owe to Chester [Haines], what I own to Langston Hughes and what I owe to W. E. B. DuBois and what I owe to Frederick Douglass. But I could not see that when I was twenty. I don't think anybody can see that at twenty. But you see they were, on one level, simply more exalted victims…. And it takes a long time before you accept what has been given to you from your past. What we call black literature is really summed up for me by the whole career, let's say, of Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, because that's how it's been handed down, since we couldn't read or write, as far as they knew. And it was at one time a crime to be able to read if you were black. It was punishable by law. We had to smuggle information, and we did it through our music and we did it in the church. You were talking before about the church you went to visit. I thought about the Apollo Theater. The last time I saw Aretha, what did she do at the Apollo Theater but turn it into a gospel church service—! And that's true religion. A black writer comes out of that: I don't mean he has to be limited to that. But he comes out of that because the standards which come from Greece and Rome, from the Judeo-Christian ethic, are very dubious when you try to apply them to your own life.15
Baldwin's position in The Fire Next Time is in the tradition of black Christian protest:
Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.16
He joins the black church in search of at least spiritual kinship: "My friend was about to introduce me when she looked at me and smiled and said, 'Whose little boy are you?' Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I 'hang out' with them. Perhaps part of the terror they had caused me to feel came from the fact that I unquestionably wanted to be somebody's little boy."17 But then he posits that the deity's historic treatment through His white representatives renders Him a nihilistic, loveless icon that cannot or will not proffer comfort at black men's altars. His rhetoric is strikingly atypical of ethnic conversion experience:
All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black: You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion.18
Instead of finding cardinal faith on the threshing floor, he concludes that God is indeed white and that the black man cannot obtain redemption in the universe:
The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, had made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God's love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night.19
As his writing develops, he not only continues the thematic ambiguity between possibilities of individual faith in and societal practice of Christianity as a religious system, he goes beyond the point of doubt about white practice to question the validity of life-alternating salvation in the black church, and he imperiously accuses God of being at best a weak, powerless, detached, "watch-maker" creator and at worst a white-skinned being who truly does (as slave masters and Puritans declared) hate and predetermine His nonwhite creation for servitude. No black American writer before Baldwin had quite the literary nerve (i.e., to risk separating himself from the mainstream of Christian black America) or the agnostic impertinence (i.e., his frequent self-recriminations for slipping toward blasphemy)20 to question openly the justice, judgment, and sincerity of God.
Yet Baldwin claims to have had a traumatic Christian conversion. He was an ardent licensed preacher of the Gospel for three years, during which time he absorbed all facets of Christian doctrine, denominational practice, and, most importantly, biblical image, symbol, narrative, and meaning. His biblical allusions and references to the black nation's spiritual consciousness are innumerable. Today he claims membership in one of the largest Baptist churches in Washington, D.C.21 He reveres as much today the Christian commitment of Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers as he did when he joined hands with them in the civil rights movement.22 The unfailing optimism, seen in the entirety of his works, that only love within and between the races will ultimately save America and its black citizens is rooted in the philosophy of Christian faith.23
In spite of the above claims, an objective look at the constantly apposed treatment of his own experience and of the collective black Christian experience, leads to the suspicion that Baldwin really does not believe in the possibility of a spiritual epiphany to life the black man above the environment of his anguish. At least he seems to accept the prevailing social theories that treat Christianity as simply a force to keep black people insensitive to the need for more immediate freedom. Both aspects can be seen in John Grimes's conversion, in Go Tell It on the Mountain under the jealous eye of his cruel, oppressive stepfather, an un-Christian minister; in the tawdry, fractious, loveless relationships in the midst of "devout" religious fervor in Amen Corner—wretched "saved saints" who will not stoop to save the dying father, Luke Alexander; likewise in the spineless father, Rev. Henry, in Blues for Mr. Charlie, whose prayers and example of Christian meekness are powerless against the congregation of white "Christian" lynchers, who kill his son in the name of God; and in that very precise essay "Many Thousands Gone," he sardonically says that even the white man knows his "Negroes" got "real" religion. The smug white persona expresses what the mainstream really feels about the "Negro":
In the case of the Negro his shameful history was carried, quite literally, on his brow. Shameful; for he was heathen as well as black and would never have discovered the healing blood of Christ had not we braved the jungles to bring him these glad tidings. As he accepted the alabaster Christ and the bloody cross—in the bearing of which he would find his redemption, as, indeed, to our outraged astonishment, he sometimes did—he must, accept that image we then gave him of himself….24
The persona concludes that his simple dilemma must be borne in mind if one wishes to comprehend Negro psychology.
Today, thirty-eight years after the appearance of Baldwin's first successful, quasi-religious novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, critics are displeased with his continuing reliance upon religious themes. They want him to leave the arena of the black church and the black family portrayed again in his latest work. Just Above My Head, and "write about something more in keeping with the contemporary problems of Black America."25 Such advice misses Baldwin's point altogether, for he believes that understanding the black man's dilemma with Christianity is axiomatic to dealing with these contemporary problems—a position that on many levels is no different from the beloved Dr. King's admonishments or those of Malcolm X, who, because of the untenable hypocrisy of practiced Christianity, disavowed his father's Baptist faith; or of the contemporary black writers of the seventies and eighties who for the most part have rejected Christianity as a basis for moral standard and have turned to Islam and other African religions.26 Baldwin says in "Everybody's Protest Novel": "The African, exile, pagan, fell on his knees before that God in Whom he must now believe; Who had made him, but not in His image. This tableau, this impossibility, is the heritage of the Negro in America: Wash me, cried the slave to his Maker, and I shall be whiter, whiter than snow! For black is the color of evil; only the robes of the saved are white…. This reality, in the same nightmare notion, he both flees and rushes to embrace."27
Although Martin insisted that the black man was made in God's image and Malcolm and Elijah Muhammed held that there definitely must be two gods—one white and one black, with the white one and his white offspring being indisputable devils—Baldwin concluded that at the core of the question was an unsolved mystery with an illusive, incomprehensible God, sometimes white, sometimes black, with variant earthly fathers as representatives of the origins of man's being and causality. Perhaps one reason that they could be so absolute and he could not was that they had at least the psychological security of knowing a true father in the flesh while he did not. Surely, the Reverend David Baldwin was not his real father. Not only had his mother finally confessed that James was born out of wedlock, the boy spoken of in Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Nobody Knows My Name intuitively knew that this mean, insecure, spiteful man could not be his father. In his constant daily behavior, the elder Baldwin made it clear that James was not among his chosen sons.
Within the cosmology of biblical narrative is of course the Cain story in which God and his image, Adam, denied Cain the honor of an elder son because he had murdered his younger brother Abel. They gave the inheritance of the lineage to a third son, Seth, and banished Cain from the familial community to wander as a vagabond on the earth. To support slavery, white theologians said that the mark God put upon Cain to establish his identity on the earth was black skin.28 A thorough student of ancient lore, Baldwin was aware that the rejection he suffered from Mr. Baldwin made him quite analogous to Cain. As mimicked in the interpersonal relations in Go Tell It on the Mountain, David Baldwin, the younger son, was the reverend's beloved namesake. Thus, the harsh father—most succinctly because of his ministerial profession—becomes a symbol of the Calvinistic God, who had likewise cursed the African to a base position of sonship.
The young Baldwin yearned to know his "real" father. Why had he deserted him, denied him name and legitimization? Was it a matter of an unworthy son or of an irresponsible father? In either case, again as with Mr. Baldwin, the alienation becomes a representative allegory for the absence of an adequate protective father in the black man's life. The sociological implications, both in black American experience and in Baldwin's works, are obvious. The awesome limitations of a racist society will not allow any of his male characters to be economically or socially functioning fathers, or serve as role models for young men to follow. Both in life and as a personal source for his young black male characters, the steps of initiation thus presume that other "fathers" in the community are available as viable substitutes. In both his life and his work, Baldwin turns first to the church and then—discarding all but its spiritually artistic forms (i.e., its music as the cradling forerunner of jazz and the blues as contrasted in "Sonny's Blues")—to the world of art and literature.
Thus, Baldwin's chaotic, essentially orphaned childhood, his conversion, and the symbolic relationship with his "earthly" fathers are merely his metaphors for the religiously inconclusive psyches of the race. The black man's relationships with the Father-God of Christianity early became a central Baldwin thesis. For him, there is no other moral standard by which whites can be judged and through which, in vindicating black peoples, the Christian God can absolve himself as the moral center of the universe. In a commentary of the black preacher's socialization of the Gospel, Baldwin makes the assumption that the confessed spiritual piety has always been an ambiguous veneer veiling demands for social justice:
The word "belief" has nearly no meaning anymore, in the recognized languages, and ineptly approaches the reality to which I am referring: for there can be no doubt that it is a reality. The blacks had first been claimed by the Christian church, and then excluded from the company of white Christians—from the fellowship of Christians: which taught us all that we needed to know about white Christians. The blacks did not so much use Christian symbols as recognize them—recognize them for what they were before the Christians came along—and, thus, reinvested these symbols with their original energy. The proof of this, simply, is the continued existence and authority of the blacks: it is through the creation of the black church that an unwritten, dispersed, and violated inheritance has been handed down. The word "revelation" has very little meaning in the recognized languages: yet, it is the only word for the moment I am attempting to approach.29
An innate perfectionist, the younger Baldwin found these absolutes quite compatible with the orderings of causal existence offered by the church. After his "conversion" experience, the directions for life were quite easy: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." God, on behalf of the suffering saints, would quickly punish the wicked. Although such simplistic answers presented ideal solutions, Baldwin soon learned that they were not easily transferable into his expanding world. He notes in The Fire Next Time that all authority appeared to come from God to subversive white representatives, without whose permission the Harlemites indeed did not seem to be able to "live, move, or have their being."30
Even more perplexing, it became equally evident during Baldwin's three years in the ministry that although God did not seem to be doing His part, perhaps God's moral standard was operating in justifiable judgment against black Christians. They themselves were not fulfilling the laws necessary to receive the savior's blessings. Baldwin confesses in The Fire Next Time:
There was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-despair. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. But what was the point, the purpose of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me?31
Therefore, all external truths that were supposed to complement the new Christian's internal ecstatic experience—the Christian church and the Christian community—were in complete contradiction to it. White Christians, to the shouting black pentecostal church, were devils to be exorcised, not brethren to be loved. Yet the blacks themselves were either humble inheritors of some future earth or heaven; or pitiful imitators of the hypocritical whites whom they despised. Herein were the seeds planted for his agonizing message. For the next forty years, Baldwin examined these polarities in his fiction, drama, and prose. He looked into, if not resolved, the mystery that the "Church Fathers" had left untouched, and he wrote to influence a national reconciliation between the hope of Christian love that he may have tasted as a young man and the intolerable realities of hate in professing disciples. The ensuing philosophy of his dilemma is best stated in his denial of faith in the "Down at the Cross" essay, in which he states that the black man's experiential condition rendered it impossible for him (Baldwin in particular and the race in general) to find salvation in the black church.
Because Baldwin knew such a theorem was heretical to the Christian doctrine he was supposed to preach, he searched for a medium other than the pulpit in order to work out and affirm both a proper communal response for those who had valid spiritual experience and a proper holocaust judgment for those who profess salvation without manifesting universal love. This reordering becomes the philosophical foundation on which he creates. In all of his works, he emphasizes these extremes in a multileveled metaphor that has the ultimate vortex of estrangement from the father.
Baldwin's call for the reunion of fathers and sons is a modern continuation of the cosmic replay, both in the Bible and in America's religious culture, of the Trinity. The father—"white," light, pure, righteous judge of the universe—had to forsake, to "blacken" with the stain of sin, to sacrifice his only son. It was a necessary sacrifice. Mankind, black or white, could not be saved without it. But the gift of universal, unpredestined salvation for which Christ died on the cross has, in succeeding generations, been stolen by evil forces and persons who want to gain wealth and power. In much popular antebellum American literature, most sympathetically in Uncle Tom's Cabin, in steps the black man, chosen from eternity as the type of Christ. Through loving self-sacrifice, in obedience to his heavenly father's will, the black sacrificial son must redeem that gift for his own generation and for the salvation of the nation. He must in love lay down his freedom, his dignity, his life for his "lost" white brother. It is also so much of an archetypal pattern in American literature and theology, a pattern that Baldwin hates. But as much as he despised it in Stowe's novel, which he read over and over as a boy, it is nonetheless one of the solutions that he sets forth to reconcile America. This is why he could not espouse the Moslem faith of Elijah Mohammed—it was a doctrine of hate. As deeply as he understands the racial foundations of American power, Baldwin has never been able to hate the white man.
Herein lie additional levels of depth in the "father" symbolism. Baldwin advocates a reunion between white fathers and black sons—an action that is not only incredibly idealistic and in most cases impossible, but one that blacks as well as whites probably find repulsive. Historically in the literary canon, awareness of the specific identity of white parentage only intensifies the bitterness of black disinheritedness and heightens the sense of schizophrenia.32 Additionally, with this thesis, Baldwin transgressed a movement in black aesthetics that demanded that black writers turn away from the tragic mulatto theme that had dominated white authorial portrayal of blacks as well as the post-Civil War birth of black American literature. In the historicity of these issues, Baldwin was well versed. Nevertheless, he insisted, especially in his early works, that for total self-discovery and purgation, blacks, indeed, all Americans, must face the horror of "The Great White Father."
Continuing aspects of the mulatto theme, he says in The Fire Next Time that the American Negro must accept the history of his white parentage, that he is neither totally African, nor Moslem, but "a unique creation; he has no counterpart anywhere, and no predecessors…. I am called Baldwin … because I was kidnapped by a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross. I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slaves in a white, Protestant country,… this is what it means to be an American Negro."33 There is also the poignant prayer by Meridian Henry, in Blues for Mr. Charlie, lamenting the murder of his only son at the hands of a white pseudo-Christian terrorist: "But can I ask the children forever to sustain the cruelty inflicted on them by those who have been their masters, and who are now, in very truth … their parents? What hope is there for a people who deny their deeds and disown their kinsmen and who do so in the name of purity and love, in the name of Jesus Christ?"34 That parentage is both physical and spiritual. Baldwin wants the white religious zealot who placed the African on the auction block to be held accountable for his failure to demonstrate the Christian protectorate that he promised in Christ. Further, he wants the white biological forefather, through the repentance of his heirs, to face the retribution of damnation for the heinous crime of denying, enslaving, and murdering his own sons.
Another point that violates the black aesthetic endeavors to reverse the images of Africans in American culture is set forth in Baldwin's generic identification of the black self as "Devil":
In our church, the Devil had many faces, all of them one's own. He was not always evil, rarely was he frightening—he was, more often, subtle, charming, cunning, and warm. So, one learned, for example, never to take the easy way out: whatever looked easy was almost certainly a trap. In short, the Devil was that mirror which could never be smashed. One had to look into the mirror every day—good morning, blues / Blues, how do you do? / Well, I'm doing all right Good morning / How are you:—check it all out, and take it all in, and travel. The pleading of the blood was not, for us, a way of exorcising a Satan whom we knew could never sleep; it was to engage Satan in a battle which we knew could never end.35
If, as he repeated to Margaret Mead in A Rap on Race, the "good" Christian God is white and is vengeful toward black persons, is he saying later in The Devil Finds Work (as indicated in the title and the theme of the book) that blacks indeed represent God's opposite? Or is he merely speaking of that tiger to be tamed within the universal self that transcends race and color?
Aspects of the metaphor that most fill Baldwin's cup of anguish are the angry, self-depreciating relationships between black fathers and sons as a necessary insulation against the white world. He suspected that it was shame at having created a black son to perpetuate the myth that caused his natural father to disown him. Likewise, the ambivalent love-hate memories of his religiously violent stepfather were a vehicle for apprehending a causal iconography symbolic of the black man's relationship with God and society. Ultimately, one who is brought up to expect that any tender mercy can turn to cruelty cannot be disillusioned. In The Devil Finds Work, he acknowledges the effectiveness of the elder Baldwin's negativistic training and patriarchy:
The pride and sorrow and beauty of my father's face: for that man I called my father really was my father in every sense except the biological, or literal one. He formed me, and he raised me, and he did not let me starve: and he gave me something, however harshly, and however little I wanted it, which prepared me for an impending horror which he could not prevent. This is not a Western idea, but fathers and sons arrive at that relationship only by claiming that relationship: that is, by paying for it, If the relationship of father to son could really be reduced to biology, the whole earth would blaze with the glory of fathers and sons.36
This image culminates in a father's acrimonious disapproving of Anglicized theories of black manhood. But, ultimately, Baldwin's texts and personal direction indicate that neither his religious stepfather nor other ministers in the church provided significant answers for an initiate whose questions were more than superficial. In Notes of a Native Son, he reminisces about the variety of the old man's life:
"But as for me and my house," my father had said, "we will serve the Lord." I wondered, as we drove him to his resting place, what this line had meant for him. I had heard him preach it many times. I had preached it once myself, proudly giving it an interpretation different from my father's. Now the whole thing came back to me, as though my father and I were on our way to Sunday school and I were memorizing the golden text…. I suspected in these familiar lines a meaning which had never been there for me before. All of my father's texts and songs, which I had decided were meaningless, were arranged before me at his death like empty bottles, waiting to hold the meaning which life would give them for me. This was his legacy: nothing is ever escaped.37
In his move from biological, familial, and church fathers, Baldwin—and, consequently, those among his black male characters who achieve reconciliation—eventually finds ostensibly compatible generative role models among the black artists and intellectuals who fostered his artistic development. His subsequent art became a journal of his search in self and society for evidence of God and His love. In that other world of the unseen black spirit—literature, art, jazz, black language, and blues—he finds authority figures who can guide him and other thoughtful young men unable to adjust to the holocaustic horror into which they had been born: "the American despair, the search, in our country for authority…. The streets of my native city were filled with youngsters searching desperately for the limits which would tell them who they were, and create for them a challenge to which they could rise."38
As seen earlier in a discussion of the strand of biblical symbolism in the works of black American writers since the eighteenth century, the racial literary heritage gave Baldwin at least a transitional basis on which to move from religious "principling" into modern secularized art and philosophy. Although he mastered the latter, he never fully renounced the former, which for his purposes was the more functional form. But he realizes that he is attempting to "marry" incompatible elements in agnostic art and traditional black Christian faith. His conflicting emotions when in late adolescence he moved away from the church and his ministerial calling are explored not only in The Fire Next Time and Notes of Native Son, but are perhaps most eloquently expressed in both Sonny's ("Sonny's Blues") and David's (Amen Corner) experiences when they suffer parental rejection because they must steal away to discover nonecclesiastical epiphanies in the ethereal grasp of black music.
Biographically, Baldwin's earliest artistic mentor was not really Countee Cullen but the prolific (and, even now barely recognized) genius, visual artist Beauford DeLaney. He was the first adult to assure Baldwin that the world of art and thought did not freakishly separate him from acceptable ethnic experience. When Baldwin visited Beauford's studio and lamented his abject poverty, the restricting duty to support eight younger brothers and sisters, and his inherent failure to maintain employment at any of the menial tasks he continually tried to swallow, he found in Beauford an understanding, compassionate friend. Beauford finally told Baldwin, who had lost his umpteenth dishwasher's job, "Perhaps you simply don't belong there," and encouraged him to pursue his writing instead.39 When the often sick and ultimately incompetent ministerial stepfather died, it was DeLaney—not black churchmen—to whom James Baldwin turned. The elder artist provided a haven for the young man, now freshly terrified at the prospect of total responsibility for the family. Beauford appealed to the neighborhood for donations to supplement his own generous cash gift, which was needed for the funeral because the impoverished family lacked the money to bury the father. Baldwin's brother David; his associate, dancer and choreographer Bernard Haskell; and distinguished black American literary critic Dr. Richard Long (who himself was strongly influenced by DeLaney and who first began his lifelong friendship with Baldwin through DeLaney) all agree with Baldwin's claim that DeLaney was the true father of Baldwin's art. In later years, Baldwin, after an intermittent but compatible association with DeLaney, was able to repay the artist's gracious gesture when he, Long, and Haskell not only buried DeLaney, who died in neglect and obscurity in Paris, but withstood the attempts of an avaricious French government to confiscate his paintings.40 Later Baldwin and Long coedited Beauford DeLaney Retrospective Exhibition: Harlem Studio Museum as a final tribute to a talented "father" who had encouraged them to let nothing inhibit their creative dreams.
Apart from Beauford's support, Baldwin was primarily on his own; though his quixotic initiative was also influenced by the world of black music, which beckoned him from Harlem's streets, as well as the consummate neighborhood and the downtown Forty-Second Street New York libraries (with their titular attempts at integration). In one interview, his brother David painfully recalls the benignly discourteous treatment that Baldwin received from Richard Wright and other members of the post-Renaissance New York circle. Later, the venerable Sterling Brown was one of the few prominent black writer/scholars who had published during the Harlem Renaissance to support Baldwin or his works when Amen Corner opened at Howard University in 1956. Brown single-handedly withstood the irate reaction of conservative black scholars who were deeply disturbed at Baldwin's portrayal of black life and language and at his irreverence for the black church.41 Although Wright interceded to get the budding writer an early fellowship to work on In My Father's House (the first title of the novel that later became Go Tell It on the Mountain), the true character of their relationship and of Wright's refusal to sponsor or associate with the younger writer is barely seen in "Alas, Poor Richard" or "Everybody's Protest Novel."
Like many black writers and artists who failed to find a congenial environment for their work in America, Baldwin set sail for France in 1948. He found some respite with white expatriots, but Beauford and Hoyt Fuller—the founder of Negro Digest and Black World, which were the major sources for publication of black writers in the fifties and sixties, and First World in the seventies—were mainstays of solace and encouragement. After hearing about his work, Hoyt wrote to Baldwin from Chicago to encourage him and to invite submissions. Through their correspondence and later acquaintance, Baldwin grew to respect Fuller as one of the few men who understood what he was trying to do.
Any conceptualization of Baldwin's quest for fathers must, of necessity, include a discussion of his own influence as an innovator in the mainstream of black American literature. Historically, Baldwin should be seen as the last black American writer to exploit as a major theme the black man's relationship with Christianity. Conversely, he may be considered the first black American writer to distance himself from the lone enduring black institution, the black church, not by its notable absence (as with Wright, Ellison,42 and other blacks writing in the first half of this century; for example, Ann Petry, Nella Larsen, Sterling Brown, Chester Himes, Paule Marshall, Robert Hayden, and William Demby), but by his overtly persistent portrayal of its lack of authentic Christian commitment. In this and his subsequent treatment of homosexuality as an acceptable form of human love (in Giovanni's Room and, most recently, in Just Above My Head)—a position he knew was not compatible with orthodox Christian behavior and thus utterly shocking even to black sophisticates—Baldwin opened the floodgate for contemporary anti-Christian, nonbiblically based black American literature. In most of his works, he only questions divine existence while still courting its allegiance, but his boldness invited younger writers to complete the schism between black art and black faith.
The schism between white-practiced Christianity and black American art was always axiomatically present. For two hundred years, black writers examined the Bible and indicted white society for the incorrigible refusal to love oppressed people (as the Bible commands); however, they agreed with the black preacher that faith in the true God and in His deliverance of them was the only accessible power upon which an enslaved or oppressed people could rely. In their works, the black church itself and faith as exercised in the hearts of black believers were sacrosanct.
Ironically, Baldwin intended his literature to influence national and personal reunification. He hoped that white fathers would repent and acknowledge their sons: that black fathers would be men of strength and love while throwing off the shackles of Tomism and that God the Father, indicated in even those oft-repeated prayerful exclamations, "God knows," would reveal the black man as an equally chosen son. The Trinity would then be restored. The trust of his message is that the validity of Christianity can best be measured by how it has affected the colored peoples of the world. That effect "seems" instead to resolve solely in oppression. I say "seems" because Baldwin still attempts to separate the visible history of black America's experience with Christianity from the spiritual, visionary experience that both he and the race may have internalized. The reality of that unseen spiritual truth, codified in his novels by the suffering blues and tarring spiritual motifs, enables him to keep advocating that the demonstrable love of Christ will bring to earth that paradise revealed on the threshing floor and fulfill that prophecy in Amos 9:7, "Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel?" Then Baldwin can have peace with the heritage of his forefathers. Then and only then will his quest end and he can unhesitantly acknowledge oneness with the Christian God, his father. Until that essence of true Christianity is revealed, Baldwin's dissociation from variant fathers tempts him to withhold absolute commitment. The totality of his theme is a cosmologically oxymoronic statement in both language and philosophy that sensible faith in an unseen God cannot transcend experience in self, race, or society. Faith, even in one's own soul, is difficult to capture in artistic medium. In an uncontrived moment, Baldwin jocularly confessed to Nikki Giovanni, "Well, it depends on what you mean by God…. I've claimed Him as my father and I'll give Him a great time until it's over because God is our responsibility."43 Although that is not belief, it at least indicates that his search for God, his primal father, is not abandoned.
1. "Race, Hate, Sex, and Colour: A Conversation," By James Baldwin with James Mossman and Colin MacInnes, Encounter 25 (1965): 55-60.
2. Acts 2:1-5. The allusion has more a pentecostal than fundamentalist flavor, as this, the more emotional mold, is essentially Baldwin's church background.
3. Most basic texts on American slavery deal with theological supports manipulated to support that institution. Studies going into the greatest detail are Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), and White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); and Roger Bastide, "Color, Racism, and Christianity," in Color and Race, ed. John Hope Franklin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968).
4. See Michel Fabre, "Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain," in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Keneth Kinnamon (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974); see also Therman B. O'Daniel, "James Baldwin: An Interpretive Study," College Language Association 7 (1963): 37-47.
5. See the entries of ex-slaves in Roger Burns, Am I Not a Man and a Brother: The Anti-Slavery Crusade of Revolutionary America, 1688–1788 (New York: Chelsea House, 1977); and Dorothy Porter, Early Negro Writing, 1760–1837 (Boston: Beacon, 1971). The story of Philemon is in the New Testament epistle bearing his name.
6. Jupiter Hammon, "A Dialogue Entitled the Kind Master and a Dutiful Servant," in America's First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island, ed. Stanley Austin Ransome, Jr. (Port Washington, N.Y., Kennikat, 1970).
7. Phillis Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, ed. Julian D. Mason (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966), 7.
8. Briton Hammon, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man (Boston, 1760); John Marrant, A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black, 1785, in Narratives of North American Indian Captivities, vol. 17 (New York: Garland, 1978). See Black Writers of America for other authors cited.
9. The most inclusive anthology is Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, Black Writers of America (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Hammon's poem is in America's First Negro Poet, ed. Ransome. The Crafts' narrative is William Craft and Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery, collected in Great Slave Narratives, ed. Arna Bontemps (Boston: Beacon, 1969). Sojourner Truth's most famous speech is in the Burns Collection.
10. See Benjamin E. Mays, The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature (New York: Russell & Russell, 1938).
11. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845; reprint ed., Garden City, New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973).
12. James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (New York: Viking, 1927); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urban: University of Illinois Press, 1978). Hughes's poems are in Barksdale and Kinnamon. Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Liveright, 1975).
13. See Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, James Baldwin (New York: Ungar, 1980). 1-7. See also chapter 1 of Fern Marja Eckman, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin (New York: M. Evans; distributed by J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1966).
14. Countee Cullen, "Yet Do I Marvel," in Black Writers of America, 531.
15. James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, A Dialogue (New York: Lippincott, 1973), 36-38.
16. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dell, 1962), 39-40.
17. Ibid., 43.
18. Ibid., 45.
19. Ibid., 46.
20. See Baldwin and Giovanni, Dialogue, 36-38. See also "Down at the Cross," in The Fire Next Time.
21. Interview (April 1981) with James Baldwin and Dr. Eleanor Traylor of Washington, D.C., one of the organizers of an appreciation day of James Baldwin's mother in 1979 at the Baptist church that Baldwin subsequently joined.
22. Baldwin is currently working on a studied biography of the lives of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. His esteem for Martin is mentioned often in his works. See, for example, Dialogue, 25.
23. Baldwin admitted at various times that Christianity, not the church but the religion itself, was one basis of his own moral philosophy. See Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (New York: Lippincott, 1979), 85-59.
24. James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone," in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955), 29-30.
25. Critical reception of Just Above My Head has been mixed. These remarks were included in a BBC broadcast on National Public Radio in 1982. See also Booklist, 1 October 1979, 216; New York Times Book Review, 23 September 1979, 3; Times Literary Supplement, 21 December 1979, 150.
26. Dr. Martin Luther King, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." in Why We Can't Wait (New York: New American Library, 1963), 76-95.
27. Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel." Notes, 21.
28. Genesis, 4.
29. James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Dial, 1976), 114.
30. Baldwin, Fire, 40.
31. Ibid., 57-58.
32. The tragic mulatto theme and its attendant schizophrenic psychosis are treated variously and continually in black American fiction, beginning with such early novels as William Wells Brown's Clotel; or The President's Daughter (London: Partridge & Oakley, 1853) and Francis E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted (Philadelphia: Garringgues Brothers, 1892). See Robert Cone's Negro Novel in America, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), for a discussion of the theme.
33. Baldwin, Fire, 114.
34. James Baldwin, Blues for Mr. Charlie (New York: Dial, 1964), 77.
35. Baldwin, Devil, 116.
36. Baldwin, Devil, 30.
37. Baldwin, Notes, 112-13.
38. James Baldwin, "The Northern Protestant," in Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Dell, 1954), 180.
39. I am preparing a biography of James Baldwin. Much of the material in this section of the essay was obtained from conversations and interviews with Mr. Baldwin, his family, and associates, I am indebted to the Emory University Grants and Research Committee for a fellowship for support in obtaining these interviews and documentation in the course of this research.
40. Interviews with James Baldwin, Bernard Haskell, David Baldwin, and Richard Long, April 1980 and August 1980.
41. Interview, James Baldwin, June 1981.
42. Richard Wright's bitter exposure to Christian dogma was through his overbearing grandmother's relationship with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, a denomination that had no historical axis in black American historical traditions. Thus, other than his hatred of her religious hypocrisy in Black Boy, his scenes are not religious and certainly did not reflect a church experience of his own. In Invisible Man, religion is confined to the rhetoric of the college campus and others political forums. Other than metaphors of groupism that also allude to the Communist party. Ellison avoids condemnation of the black church.
43. Baldwin and Giovanni, Dialogue, 38.
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