A Question of the Beat: Rediscovering James Baldwin
A couple of years ago, because I found myself taking a lot of road trips that involved extended periods on some pretty boring Interstate highways, I purchased a set of recordings called Voices of Our Time, a series of live interviews conducted by Studs Terkel over a period of four decades during his popular radio show at WMFD Chicago. The set included some forty-eight different conversations with a wide variety of thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, actors and performers, journalists and scientists and other people whom Terkel found interesting. I thought it would be diverting and entertaining to listen to during those long drives where nothing much changed except the numbers on the exit signs. And it was. I was fascinated to hear to the voices of people whom I largely knew only in print. Dorothy Parker, who’s querulous, genteel tones seemed completely at odds with her acerbic voice on paper. Gore Vidal, who writes like an angel but sounds like an academic. Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose voice sounds exactly like the characters in his stories.
And then I came to the 1961 interview with James Baldwin. And life changed. Terkel opened the program by playing a song from Bessie Smith’s record Back Water Blues:
When it thunders and lightning and the wind begins to blow,
As Bessie’s voice faded out, Terkel introduced Baldwin as “the young American novelist . . . one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today.” Terkel asks him, as he listens to Bessie Smith, what he is feeling.
“It is very hard to describe that feeling,” Baldwin answers. “The first time I heard this record was in Europe, and under very different circumstances that I had ever listened to Bessie in New York. What struck me was the fact that she was singing, as you say, about a disaster, which had almost killed her, and she accepted it and was going beyond it. There is a fantastic kind of understatement in it. It is the way I want to write.”
It is very hard to describe my feeling, the first time I heard Baldwin’s voice on the recording. What struck me was the way he spoke; melodious, articulate, elegant . . . there was a fantastic kind of understatement in his tone that gave his words an insistent urgency. My god, I thought, the way he speaks . . . is that the way he writes!?
I have read books by James Baldwin, of course. His works were part of that literary baseline given to any recipient of a public school education—I’m talking about the ubiquitous high school reading list. I have since begun to wonder whether I shouldn’t go back and re-read all those books I was assigned in the tenth and eleventh grades. At the time, I read to consume. To be able to hand in a list and say “yes, I have read these.” Maybe I would have to write a (very uninspired) essay about some of the books. But mostly, the goal was simply to finish them. When I reread The Great Gatsby years later, I discovered that a book I thought was a silly story about a dumb infatuation with a stupid girl was in fact a jewel of a novel—possibly the most perfect novel ever written. What I remembered of Wuthering Heights was a lot of stormy scenes and dark, glowering, gloomy settings. When I reread the book recently, I was shocked at just how furious a story it really was. Obviously, although I had read them in high school, I was in no position to really get them. In high school, I must have been a real nitwit.
Baldwin’s books—Go Tell It on the Mountain, If Beale Street Could Talk—I had read during our “African-American literature section” in English class one year. So his books had kind of run together in my mind with Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison under the very vague heading of “the Black American Experience.” The books were dutifully absorbed and reports were written, tests were taken and aced thanks to my (then) excellent short-term memory, and then we moved on to “Native American novelists” or “Chinese-American novelists” or whatever was next on the syllabus.
And I hadn’t given Baldwin another thought until twenty-five years later when his voice came over the radio and said everything that I had ever said to myself about the nature of art and identity, and said it so very beautifully. It isn’t often that one finds the writers whose eloquence on paper is matched by their eloquence in person, so it is always a thrill to find one who is. I am a little old to be developing literary crushes, but I think if I had heard this interview in high school I would have been putting Baldwin’s picture up in my locker.
Terkel’s interview with Baldwin ranged far, covering everything from how he became “one of the few men in the world today who knows who he is,” how he became a writer, the politics of identity and race in America, the imperiled state of our culture, and the role of the writer—and artist—in carrying the country through crisis. It was sometimes hard to remember that he was speaking in 1961 instead of last week. Baldwin spoke of what it meant to be black in a white America, but the sense of isolation, the “psychological collision” (his term) that happens when you realize that the country you live in is hostile to your very existence—well that feeling was very current and familiar. Familiar to every woman who has tried to live independently in a man’s world, familiar to every gay person who has tried to live “normally” in a heterosexual world. Familiar, I think, to anyone who has ever found themselves isolated for no other reason than being themselves. “I’m not mad at this country anymore,” says the author at one point, “I am very worried about it . . . The country doesn’t know what it has done to Negroes. And the country has no notion whatever—and this is disastrous—of what it has done to itself.”
Terkel asks him to explain. It is a favorite theme of Baldwin’s that comes up over and over again in his work, particularly the book they were discussing at the time, a collection of essays called Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. A country is only ever as strong as its people, and no amount of material wealth (Baldwin talks of Cadillacs but we could just as easily talk of iPhones) or enforced power will stave off cultural disintegration if the price we pay is in our personal freedom and responsibilities. Baldwin suggests that the status quo—in his case, a segregated America—is always dependent on the individual’s own willingness to give up freedom, in his own complicity in his repression. But this is fatal for the country, because eventually the repressed will rise. (“Birmingham,” he notes in Nobody Knows My Name with a chilling prescience, “is a doomed city.”)
“One of the reasons I think that our youth is so badly educated,” he tells Terkel, “—and it is inconceivably badly educated—is because education demands a certain daring, a certain independence of mind. You have to teach young people to think, and in order to do that you have to teach them to think about everything. There mustn't be something they cannot think about. If there is one thing they cannot think about, then very shortly they cannot think about anything.”
Like Baldwin, I have a kind of fanatical devotion to that “certain daring, certain independence of mind” that forever questions, questions, questions. Like him, I tend to kick hard against anything that attempts to reign in or limit that impulse to know, that basic impulse of curiosity that is the hallmark of the human race and the germinating seed of all its creative endeavors.
But as attractive as I found the political James Baldwin, I was even more . . . seduced . . . by the artist. Whatever he said so persuasively in his essays, he said it twenty times more beautifully in his novels. James Baldwin was the son of a preacher and did some preaching himself when he was a young man. You can always tell the son of a preacher by his elocution, his impeccable sense of cadence and rhythm. But it apparently wasn’t always so. The reason Studs Terkel played Bessie Smith at the beginning of their interview was because of something Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, about his attempts to write the novel that would eventually become Another Country: “I, like many a writer before me upon the discovery that his props have all been knocked out from under him, suffered a species of breakdown and was carried off to the mountains of Switzerland. There in that absolutely alabaster landscape, armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to try to re-create the life I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight.”
He had, in other words, put so much effort in overcoming his past (and he had the most beautiful diction to show for it) that he couldn’t write convincing black dialogue. He couldn’t remember what it sounded like—he couldn’t remember how he himself used to talk. “It was not a question of dropping s’s or n’s or g’s,” he said. “It was a question of the beat. And Bessie had the beat.” Baldwin wrote Another Country in the beat he heard in Bessie Smith’s singing:
For to remember Leona was also—somehow—to remember the eyes of his mother, the rage of his father, the beauty of his sister. It was to remember the streets of Harlem, the boys on the stoops, the girls behind the stairs and on the roofs, the white policeman who had taught him how to hate, the stickball games in the streets, the women leaning out of windows and the numbers they played daily hoping for the hit his father never made . . . a nigger, said his father, lives his whole life, lives and dies according to a beat. Shit, he humps to that beat and the baby he throws up in there, well, he jumps to it and comes out nine months later like a goddamn tambourine.
The novel had not yet been published when Baldwin spoke to Studs Terkel about Bessie’s black voice crooning out over the white snow of Switzerland, but he must have been thinking about the tribute he paid her when he let one of his characters listen to that same song:
There’s thousands of people, Bessie now sang, ain’t got no place to go, and for the first time Rufus began to hear, in the severely understated monotony of this blues, something which spoke to his troubled mind. The piano bore the singer witness, stoic and ironic. Now that Rufus himself had no place to go—’cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no mo’, sang Bessie—he hear the line and the tone of the singer, and he wondered how others had moved beyond the emptiness and horror which faced him now.
People sometimes say of books they really like that “I read it straight through, I don’t know what happened to the time.” That they became so absorbed in the story they lost track of the time, and set the book down surprised to find hours had passed during what felt like moments. After I finished listening to Baldwin’s interview with Terkel, I went and found myself a copy of Another Country. I read it straight through. But time did not disappear, it stretched. Twenty pages held the experiences of twenty years. I would look up from my reading surprised to find it was still the same afternoon, so far had the book taken me, so deeply had it set me thinking. It was achingly beautiful—and wise—writing. And I could kick my high school English teachers for assigning us Baldwin’s books and never teaching us to see just how beautiful, how wise.
Or at least playing Bessie for us, so that we could hear (as I hear now) the author’s voice in the back of our minds reminding us “it’s a question of the beat, and Bessie had the beat.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.