JULY 18, 2019
JAMES BALDWIN HAS GROWN into the wise, guiding elder of the United States’s fractured racial conversation. His presence is at times almost palpable. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his memoir Between the World and Me (2015) as a letter to his teenage son, directly invoking Baldwin’s addressing his teenage nephew in The Fire Next Time. Jesmyn Ward titled her 2016 essay anthology of black writers The Fire This Time, where she recounts feeling adrift as she struggles to cope with the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and other young black men. “In desperation,” she writes, “I sought James Baldwin.”
Baldwin has been such a compelling voice on race, we may forget that he was equally searching on love. By my count, The Fire Next Time contains the word race four times, but love, 55. Several essays directly connect the two. Recently, we’ve been reminded of Baldwin’s vision of the redemptive power of black love by Barry Jenkins’s tender screen adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). But Baldwin also wondered whether interracial encounters could redeem the divide between black and white America. In The Fire Next Time, he wrote,
If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.
This is Baldwin at his most optimistic. Just as often, he warned that white supremacy might ultimately undo America, as, historically speaking, it already had. Baldwin was hardly suggesting the naïve idea that shared racial truth-bearing could defeat a centuries-old system of physical and institutional race violence, but instead that such an encounter must lie at the core of any possible reckoning.
Baldwin’s Another Country, published in 1962, a year before The Fire Next Time, is the novel that plays out his conflicting visions of interracial intimacy. The story taps a deep well. The drama of severely injured friendships and sexual relationships can be read as an allegory of a brutal struggle within America’s collective racial and sexual psyche. Baldwin described this afflicted state in his essay collection Nobody Knows My Name. While blacks and whites might feel profoundly alien, Baldwin said, “[M]y own experience proves to me that the connection between American whites and blacks is far deeper and more passionate than any of us like to think.” This precarious but deeply intimate condition is what he portrays with the racially and sexually intersectional cast of Another Country, whose members desire, fear, rage, play, betray, and possibly, do love.
Another Country does not celebrate interracial love; it suggests only its fragile possibility, showing a racial America stripped bare, often literally. But the essential and enduring promise for these wounded characters is that, despite their defenses and denials, they speak and they witness each other’s wrenching racial truths. Their tense dialogues on race, layered with explorations of gay sexuality, remain radical nearly 60 years later and a reminder of how timid these conversations can be today in spaces of liberal propriety. For contemporary writers who strive to depict interracial relationships with depth and freedom from inhibition, Baldwin can continue to be the wise, guiding elder.
The novel’s stage is a Manhattan that brims with intense interracial interaction, the city’s jazz clubs like overheated hives of black-white sexual tension. Uptown Harlem is the sensual mixing space and downtown Greenwich Village, the refuge for same sex and interracial coupling. This is Baldwin’s grayscale world.
The streets feel racially inhospitable, as nameless figures murmur from benches about the interracial couples walking by, while the police look on with suspicion. The story opens with the central figure of Rufus, a black man wandering the streets at his final limit, after the accumulated years of racial abuse and sexual pain turn him against his own being. When he leaps from the George Washington Bridge, named for the supposed father of the country, it suggests one meaning of the novel’s title, that living black in America, you’re existentially in another country. Baldwin shocks our senses, flashing back to a night months before, when Rufus picks up Leona, a sheltered white Southerner. On a dark balcony, they have sex, which we experience from his point of view as a racially venomous psychological assault. If Baldwin is out to explore some hope for interracial intimacy, he heads straight for the provocation of America’s historically poisonous trope of the black man raping the white Southern woman.
But this turns out to be a kind of sacrificial purging of rage that allows the coupling of Rufus’s younger sister, Ida, and his white best friend, Vivaldo, as they struggle with grief. Their relationship becomes the novel’s central focus inside a web of romantic pairings, a complex intersection of race and same gender sexuality. All the relationships are profoundly troubled, poor case studies for any self-help guide, especially where fidelity is any criteria. Yet these relationships are alive; these people are deeply engaged.
Another Country is a novel of self-searching, often volatile conversations that reads like a melodramatic stage play. What is most striking about this raw race talk, as searching as any attempted in fiction to the present day, is not that black characters openly vent their racial anger in living room parties and bedrooms, but that liberal whites, despite their confused guilt and empathy failures, listen. And they reply without politically correct calculation.
Vivaldo reaches out to Rufus hours before his friend’s death, but fails, as Rufus falls into a furious, unrelenting despair about New York’s racism. When Vivaldo’s friend, Cass, later asks Ida whether she hates white people, Ida, deeply embittered by Rufus’s suicide, delivers an unvarnished, jazz-like soliloquy on white supremacy:
[W]ouldn’t you hate all white people if they kept you in prison here? […] Kept you here and stunted you and starved you and made you watch your mother and father and sister and lover and brother and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes? And not in a hurry, like from one day to the next, but every day, every day, for years, for generations? Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, the filthy, white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with the same music, too, only, keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder.
Cass seems unperturbed. “I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Cass responds, “but I guess I don’t have any right to say it isn’t true.”
Baldwin suggests here that if blacks and whites are to be friends, lovers, or anything approaching allies, they’ll have to confront black rage, the burning emotion at the heart of his 1955 essay, “Notes of a Native Son.” On the day in 1943 that Harlem itself explodes into racial rage, Baldwin attends his father’s funeral, a man Baldwin says died from the bitterness and pain burning inside him. Haunted by his father’s emotional legacy, Baldwin recounts the night when, after being refused service twice in New Jersey restaurants, he realizes in a “blind fever” that he could commit murder.
Vivaldo and Ida’s intimacy brings up her rage, which continually threatens to overtake their periodic tenderness. Although they are bonded in grief, Rufus’s suicide also creates a wedge between the couple, as Vivaldo cannot fathom how racial oppression drove Rufus over the edge. Ida struggles with a stark asymmetry. Vivaldo uses the relationship to feel better racially, easing his guilt about supposedly failing Rufus, while also feeling that he’s challenging racism by being with a black woman. But for Ida, being with Vivaldo fails to alter any racial circumstance:
“Our being together doesn’t change the world, Vivaldo.”
“It does,” he said, “for me.”
“That,” she said, “is because you’re white.”
At one point, Vivaldo gratuitously provokes her anger as he argues by phone with his racist mother. Ida overhears him ask whether he can bring over a new girlfriend, and correctly perceives that he plans to use her for shock value at a family party. After the call, she dresses him down with wicked sarcasm as he offers his weak invitation.
“Want to come to a birthday party?”
“No, thank you, sweetie. You want to educate your family, you get them some slides, you hear. Colored slides.”
He then claims she’s overreacting.
“Oh, shit,” he said, “here we go again…”
“What do you mean, you white motherfucker!” She mimicked him. “Here we go again!”
The confrontation then deepens, as she accuses him of “whoring” her, her fear surfacing about his earlier history of soliciting Harlem prostitutes, the anxiety compounded by his ongoing and ultimately correct suspicion that she is sleeping with her music agent to advance a singing career. The layers are complex because we cannot be sure what is racial and what is racialized. An underlying tension is that he simply envies her emerging artistic success, while he flails at writing a novel. But because they do not address the issue, it funnels into their racial narrative.
The key question is whether these impaired and often egocentric souls are merely scraping racial wounds or facilitating each other’s awareness the way Baldwin envisions blacks and whites might achieve in The Fire Next Time. In that book, he claims that “[l]ove takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Baldwin believed that whites claiming racial superiority was a defensive mask to hide fear, and ultimately a failure of self-love. “White people in this country,” he wrote “will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
At the end of Ida and Vivaldo’s confrontation, they end up laughing and reconciled, embracing on the floor. “You are a fucked-up group of people,” she says. “You hear me?” He claims that he does and concedes. “Have mercy on me, baby,” he says, returning her sarcasm. Has Baldwin presented some fragment of de-masking?
The novel climaxes with a 20-page blowout truth-bearing between them that raises the same question and again ends with them on the floor, gazing at each other in what feels almost like Baldwin’s vision of the collective gaze between black and white America. He weeps while she holds him, “stroking his innocence out of him,” playing an attending role that Baldwin suggested black America might have to shoulder. “She looked directly at him,” he writes, “and an unnameable heat and tension flashed violently alive between them, as close to hatred as it was to love.”
A thousand miles from New York and 55 years later, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Baldwin’s spiritual mentee, Jesmyn Ward, depicts an interracial relationship with an entirely different chemistry in Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2017 National Book Award. While Baldwin’s hyperverbal characters engage race explicitly, Ward invokes their silence. So much remains racially unspoken amid the traumas of murder, drug addiction, domestic violence, and incarceration.
A plot-based reading would reveal almost the opposite. Race sears the surface. Leonie, a black woman, is in a relationship with Michael, a white man, whose viciously racist father, Big Joseph, will not speak his biracial grandchildren’s names and considers Leonie a trespasser on his property. The story’s precipitating event is a hate crime. Michael’s cousin shoots Leonie’s brother, Given, dead in the woods, and the family covers it up as a hunting accident.
As in Another Country, shared grief fuses a couple together. But while Vivaldo and Ida seem impelled by verbal and sexual energy, we get little initial indication of why Michael and Leonie are attracted to each other, though Leonie says, “from the first moment I saw him walking across the grass to where I sat in the shadow of the school sign, he saw me. Saw past skin the color of unmilked coffee.” It becomes clear, however, that this is more the force of an unacknowledged traumatic bonding.
For Michael, equally drawn to Leonie, the relationship seems a silent racial penance. They never speak of Given’s murder, like Ida and Vivaldo speak of Rufus. Instead, Given privately appears to Leonie during her frequent meth highs. We cannot, however, access Given’s place in Michael’s psyche because the narration is first person, alternating between Leonie and their teenage son, Jojo. The couple barely speak of race, including the implications of having biracial children. The most overt mention of Jojo and their daughter Kayla’s skin color is when Michael expresses concerns that Kayla looks sallow. Leonie replies, “Of course she’s yellow. She’s our baby.”
If they have any opportunity to heal America’s bloody racial wound through their children’s bodies, the quest dies in a haze of cooked drugs and parental neglect. Ward, however, offers the prescient 13-year-old son, Jojo, as a hopeful, maternal response to Baldwin’s world of urban, childless isolates. But though this beautiful young hero is half white, like many of Ward’s other young male characters, he appears fated to be a vulnerable black man fighting on his own.
Between Ida, Vivaldo, Leonie, and Michael, true interracial love appears distant. The darker view would be that Baldwin and Ward do not ultimately believe in it. But Baldwin was what might be called a cynical optimist and Another Country a cautionary, but not foreclosing tale. The title is ambiguous, but does suggest love’s possibility; maybe the United States itself can heal into another country. The work will have to go deep, for so many of us can feel like foreign countries to each other, and even to ourselves. Baldwin says of Vivaldo, “Perhaps it was he who did not know how to give, did not know how to love. Love was a country he knew nothing about.” And this deficit extends far beyond race. Baldwin was generous, but also uncompromising. The fruitful struggle for intimacy, he believed, would be fierce. “Love,” he wrote, “does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
Erik Gleibermann is a writer in San Francisco and a contributing editor at World Literature Today. He has written for The Atlantic, The Black Scholar, Colorlines, the Guardian, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. He recently completed Jewfro American: An Interracial Memoir.