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Critical Essay by Chinua Achebe
SOURCE: "James Baldwin," in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe, Simon & Schuster, 1989, pp. 213-17.
Chinua Achebe is a novelist whose works include Things Fall Apart and Anthills of the Savannah. In the following essay, he asserts the value of James Baldwin's legacy.
The many and varied tributes to Jimmy Baldwin, like the blind men's version of the elephant, are consistent in one detail—the immensity, the sheer prodigality of endowment.
When my writing first began to yield small rewards in the way of free travel, UNESCO came along and asked where I would like to go. Without hesitation I said, "U.S.A. and Brazil." And so I came to the Americas for the first time in 1963.
My intention, which was somewhat nebulous to begin with, was to find out how the Africans of the diaspora were faring in the two largest countries of the New World. In UNESCO files, however, it was stated with greater precision. I was given a fellowship to enable me to study literary trends and to meet and exchange ideas with writers.
I did indeed make very many useful contacts: John O. Killens, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Paule Marshall, Le Roi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), and so on; and for good measure, Arthur Miller. They were all wonderful to me. And yet there was no way I could hide from myself or my sponsors my sense of disappointment that one particular meeting could not happen because the man concerned was away in France. And that was the year of The Fire Next Time.
Before I came to America I had discovered and read Go Tell It on the Mountain, and been instantly captivated. For me it combined the strange and the familiar in a way that was entirely new. I went to the United States Information Service Library in Lagos to see what other material there might be by or on this man. There was absolutely nothing. So I offered a couple of suggestions and such was the persuasiveness of newly independent Africans in those days that when next I looked in at the library they had not only Baldwin but Richard Wright as well.
I had all my schooling in the educational system of colonial Nigeria. In that system Americans, when they were featured at all, were dismissed summarily by our British administrators as loud and vulgar. Their universities, which taught such subjects as dishwashing, naturally produced half-baked noisy political agitators, some of whom were now rushing up and down the country because they had acquired no proper skills.
But there was one American book which the colonial educators considered of sufficient value to be exempted from the general censure of things American and actually to be prescribed reading in my high school. It was the autobiography of Booker T. Washington: Up from Slavery.
This bizarre background probably explains why my first encounter with Baldwin's writing was such a miraculous experience. Nothing that I had heard or read or seen quite prepared me for the Baldwin phenomenon. Needless to say, my education was entirely silent about W. E. B. DuBois, who, as I later discovered, had applied his experience of what he called "the strange meaning of being black" in America to ends and insights radically different from Washington's.
A major aspect of my reeducation was to see (and what comfort it gave me!) that Baldwin was neither an aberration nor likely to be a flash in the pan. He brought a new sharpness of vision, a new energy of passion, a new perfection of language to battle the incubus of race which DuBois had prophesied would possess our century—which prophecy itself had a long pedigree through the slave revolts back into Africa where, believe it or not, a seventeenth-century Igbo priest-king, Eze Nri, had declared slavery an abomination. I say believe it or not because this personage and many others like him in different parts of Africa do not fit the purposes of your history books.
When at last I met Jimmy in person in the jungles of Florida in 1980, I actually greeted him with "Mr. Baldwin, I presume!" You should have seen his eyes dancing, his remarkable face working in ripples of joyfulness. During the four days we spent down there I saw how easy it was to make Jimmy smile, and how the world he was doomed to inhabit would remorselessly deny him that simple benediction.
Baldwin and I were invited by the African Literature Association to open its annual conference in Gainesville with a public conversation. As we stepped into a tremendous ovation in the packed auditorium of the Holiday Inn. Baldwin was in particularly high spirits. I thought the old preacher in him was reacting to the multitude.
He went to the podium and began to make his opening statements. Within minutes a mystery voice came over the public address system and began to hurl racial insults at him and me. I will see that moment to the end of my life: the happiness brutally wiped off Baldwin's face; the genial manner gone; the eyes flashing in defiant combativeness; the voice incredibly calm and measured. And the words of remorseless prophecy began once again to flow.
One of the few hopeful examples of leadership in Africa was terminated abruptly when Captain Thomas Sankara, leader of Burkina Faso, was murdered in his fourth year of rule by his second-in-command. The world did not pay too much attention to yet another round of musical chairs by power-hungry soldiers in Africa. In any event Sankara was a brash young man with Marxist leanings who recently had the effrontery to read a lecture to a visiting head of state who happened to be none other than President Mitterrand of France himself. According to press reports of the incident, Mitterrand, who is a socialist veteran in his own right, rose to the occasion. He threw away his prepared speech and launched into an hour-long counterattack in which he must have covered much ground. But the sting was in the tail: "Sankara is a disturbing person. With him it is impossible to sleep in peace. He does not leave your conscience alone" (New York Times, August 23, 1987, p. 10).
I have no doubt that Mitterrand meant his comment as some kind of praise for his young and impatient host. But it was also a deadly arraignment and even conviction. Principalities and powers do not tolerate those who interrupt the sleep of their consciences. That Baldwin got away with it for forty years was a miracle. Except, of course, that he didn't get away; he paid dearly every single day of those years, every single hour of those days.
What was his crime that we should turn him into a man of sadness, this man inhabited by a soul so eager to be loved and to smile? His demands were so few and so simple.
His bafflement, childlike—which does not mean simpleminded but deeply profound and saintly—comes across again and nowhere better perhaps than in his essay "Fifth Avenue, Uptown": "Negroes want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement containing seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud and the Bible find this statement impenetrable." This failure to comprehend turns out to be, as one might have suspected, a willful, obdurate refusal. And for good reason. For let's face it, that sentence, simple and innocent-looking though it may seem, is in reality a mask for a profoundly subversive intent to reorder the world. And the world, viewed from the high point of the pyramid where its controllers reside, is working perfectly well and sitting firm.
Egypt's Pharaoh, according to the myth of the Israelites, faced the same problem when a wild-eyed man walked up to him with a simple demand, four words long: "Let my people go!" We are not told that he rushed off to his office to sign their exit visa. On the contrary.
So neither history nor legend encourages us to believe that a man who sits on his fellow will some day climb down on the basis of sounds reaching him from below. And yet we must consider how so much more dangerous our already very perilous world would become if the oppressed everywhere should despair altogether of invoking reason and humanity to arbitrate their cause. This is the value and the relevance, into the foreseeable future, of James Baldwin.
As long as injustice exists, whether it be within the American nation itself or between it and its neighbors; as long as a tiny cartel of rich, creditor nations can hold the rest in iron chains of usury; so long as one third or less of mankind eat well and often to excess while two-thirds and more live perpetually with hunger; as long as white people who constitute a mere fraction of the human race consider it natural and even righteous to dominate the rainbow majority whenever and wherever they are thrown together; and—the oldest of them all—as long as the discrimination by men against women persists, the words of James Baldwin will be there to bear witness and to inspire and elevate the struggle for human freedom.
This section contains 1,519 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)