“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me, the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me to all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
–James Baldwin, Early Essays
At what point can a person give up on the culture that raised them? Perhaps it’s after they’ve been embarrassed or heartbroken, or told in various ways that they were socially unacceptable, or, even worse, simply “not right.” Perhaps it occurs after they’ve been treated in such a way, day in and day out, that they are unable to separate the slights.
In his early twenties, James Baldwin (born August 2, 1924) chose to give up on American culture by simply leaving. “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves,” he once wrote, “but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”
In 1946, America for James Baldwin meant constant discrimination for being a gay black man. He lived mainly in Greenwich Village in New York, trying his best to make it as a writer. He had written a portion of a novel, entitled In My Father’s House, and read it out loud to a friend by the name of Esther. She liked it enough to introduce him to a famous black American author named Richard Wright, who had already hit it big with his novel, Native Son.
Baldwin was surely a little geeked out by Wright the first time they met. But after some bourbon and small talk, Wright asked to see the pages of Baldwin’s first novel. In a state of euphoria, Baldwin went back home and spent the night revising and organizing his novel before sending it off to Wright the next day. Wright was impressed, and used his influence to help Baldwin get a Eugene F. Saxton fellowship, provided by Harper publishing. The prize was good for $500, some of which Baldwin shared with his mother.
With the fellowship came support and an immense pressure to deliver. On the bright side, he had clout, and when he had dinner with Harper’s president Frank S. MacGregor, he purposely chose an Italian restaurant (called San Remo) that had in the past refused to serve him. Walking in with MacGregor, Baldwin was properly served and, even better, bonded with the staff. This would prove important since, according to W.J. Weatherby’s incredible biography, James Baldwin: Artist on Fire, a group of whites outside the restaurant later grew belligerent with Baldwin on the street, and the young writer hid in the restaurant. The owners flipped the lights off, sat in the back room, and waited until the raucous group left. He’d been accepted, with an assist from a rich white man, but still, Baldwin could begin to see that change was possible.
On the dark side of this Saxton fellowship loomed the heavy weight of expectation. Baldwin realized he wasn’t ready yet to complete such a project, and In My Father’s House was forced into existence a bit too early. After Harper rejected it, Baldwin started to drink heavily. He took a long break from writing, worked briefly as a waiter, and tried his best to socialize, even though he was being pulled in different directions. A friend whom he met at the time commented that, intellectually, Baldwin “associated with the world of the white Village bohemians and emotionally with other blacks.”
Over time, Baldwin returned to writing, choosing book reviews as his mode of expression. On April 12, 1947, his first professional review was published. Book reviews fit him naturally, and The Nation was impressed with his reviews so much that he was a given a spot on their staff. But still, life in America proved unbearable. A close friend of his, Eugene Worth, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. The discrimination each day, the difficulties in building a writing career, and the personal relationships that Baldwin would often self-sabotage, all led to this realization:
I no longer felt I knew who I really was, whether I was really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. I had become a crazy oddball. I had to get my head together to survive and my only hope of doing that was to leave America.
At one point, Baldwin was at such a breaking point that he purposely entered a restaurant where he knew he wouldn’t be served. He wanted trouble—or death. He’d grown so frustrated with the organized segregation around him that he thought of killing the first white waitress who came up to him and told him to leave. Perhaps he was even thinking about Eugene, his friend, another victim of shallow racial hatred. Gritting his teeth, clenching his fists, Baldwin must have stood at that entrance putting together all of the slights he’d ever received, all of the name calling, the glares, the bullying, wanting to release it all, right then and there.
Baldwin picked up a glass of water. He glared at the waitress and then threw the full glass at her, hitting a mirror behind her. The shattering sound must have struck just enough sense into him to leave the restaurant and never come back.
As he walked away, Baldwin realized he’d been too deeply poisoned by the society around him. America’s “mythic land of opportunity” was to Baldwin nothing more than a land of contradictions.
At the age of twenty-four, with money left over from another fellowship that he had received, Baldwin headed for Paris, leaving behind failed relationships, failed writing projects, and a bitter hatred toward society that had been boiling within him. Eugene Worth, however, remained deep within his psyche. He would later have a character (Rufus) in his 1962 novel, Another Country, jump off the George Washington Bridge. In reading that specific passage, one can easily imagine Baldwin reliving the fatal moment, with as much clarity as a man can take:
[T]he 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.
Baldwin carried within him the fires of a tormented soul, and though there were plenty of chances for him to act out and, in his words, “kill somebody or be killed,” he held back, found Paris, and allowed himself a chance to recover.
While on that plane to France, it wouldn’t be too big of a leap to imagine Baldwin looking out his window, a wall of cloud below him. For a moment he was above it all—the racism, the madness that drove his friend to an early grave, the immature hatred—suspended in air, in pursuit of a future that could, with some luck, float its way through the chaos.
It took living abroad to see it, but eventually Baldwin found hope in humanity that was not confined to religious principles. He once said that if “the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” He’d been pushed into the Baptist ministry at an early age, but through a determination to find a more natural sense of self, Baldwin would use his writing abilities to give those outside the system an identity they could believe in. God was important, but society needed all the help it could get.