NPR Features James Baldwin

NPR’s Morning Edition featured James Baldwin today as part of their continuing “American Lives” series. Listen and read here. Their lede–

The writer James Baldwin once made a scathing comment about his fellow Americans: “It is astonishing that in a country so devoted to the individual, so many people should be afraid to speak.”

As an openly gay, African-American writer living through the battle for civil rights, Baldwin had reason to be afraid — and yet, he wasn’t. A television interviewer once asked Baldwin to describe the challenges he faced starting his career as “a black, impoverished homosexual,” to which Baldwin laughed and replied: “I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”

In the piece, NPR talks with Randall Kenan, editor of a new collection of Baldwin’s essays, speeches, and articles called The Cross of Redemption. The link above includes a great excerpt of one of Baldwin’s essays, “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” A taste–

The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

A Mercy — Toni Morrison

a-mercy

With her latest novel A Mercy, Toni Morrison offers up more evidence of why she is possibly America’s greatest living author. As in earlier works like Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, in A Mercy Morrison examines the strange intersections of race and geography, family and culture, memory and storytelling. And like those great novels before it, at the center of A Mercy (a center, mind you that Morrison frequently works to decenter) is that great post-modern question: what is identity?

The late-seventeenth-century America of A Mercy is at once paradoxically both alien and familiar. This America is seemingly wild and free and unconstrained, yet the land–purchased with the blood of the native Indians–is worked by slaves and indentured servants. The freedom to be viciously intolerant of anyone else’s religion abounds. A lazy eye might get you burned for a witch. Life is cheap and difficult, but there is also much beauty here, and for a time, the makeshift family of characters who populate A Mercy seems happy enough. Morrison’s genius in this novel, however, is to only present these moments of contentment and happiness in fragments, interspersed between each of her character’ desires for freedom, future, family, and ultimately, self. We see glimpses of one character’s joys or sufferings through the eyes of another character, a technique that builds and layers and enriches a narrative where, honestly, very little happens. A farmer-turned-trader gets sick and dies, never finishing the house he was building. Then his wife gets sick, and sends her young slave to get the blacksmith, a free black man, who she believes can heal her. By the time he arrives, she’s better, but her ersatz family is forever sundered. Summarized, the linear plot sounds thin, but the depth of storytelling around Morrison’s deceptively simple story is marvelous. Morrison achieves this depth via the different voices and perspectives that propel her novel.

The voice of the young enslaved girl Florens initiates the novel with the enigmatic opening line, “Don’t be afraid.” Her opening command both engages and disorients (and, sign of a great novel, begs to be read again after completing the book). “Stranger things happen all the time everywhere,” she recognizes, before asking “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?” Right away, Morrison tells us this a novel about how to read, where to find cause, and possibly, how to create one’s own agency in a world that makes slaves and servants–or food–out of almost everybody.

William Blake - Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796)
William Blake - Europe Supported by Africa and America (1796)

This question of agency runs throughout each of the chapters that alternate with Florens’s first person narrative. There’s Jacob Vaark, who takes Florens as part of a debt owed him by a fading aristocrat. Vaark is disgusted at the aristocrat’s lavish lifestyle, and although the slave trade repels him – “God help me if this is not the most wretched business” – he agrees to take Florens at the pleading of her mother (Florens will be haunted forever by what she interprets as abandonment). Vaark is, however, smitten by the slaver’s elaborate house and vows to build one just as grand. His attempt to build a castle from his own labor in the New World, a castle free from any title or rank or order is his own claim to agency. There’s also the voice of his wife Rebekkah, who spends her chapter in a pox-ridden fever dream that dips and floats and weaves through time and space. Her father essentially sells her mail-order to Jacob. She leaves the dirty, crowded Old World on a dirty, crowded ship. Stuck in dark steerage, she makes a community with a group of whores, “Women of and for men,” who, in transit, exist in a strange uncomfortable comfort, a “blank where a past did not haunt nor a future beckon.” Rebekkah will attempt to forge another strange, transitory family when she arrives in America. She grows quickly to love Jacob; soon, she even loves Lina, the enslaved Indian girl Jacob buys for both pity and service. Lina and Rebekkah forge an alliance, weathering the death of the Vaark’s children, as well as Jacob’s extended absences as he expands his trade. They are less ready to accept another foundling, Sorrow, who Jacob brings home (solely for pity); a little bit crazy (“daft”), she spends much of the novel mysteriously pregnant. However, Lina quickly warms to Florens, treating her as her own daughter, even if Rebekkah will not. Also there are Scully and Willard, two indentured servants who may never gain their freedom. Willard imagines the family they all comprise: “A good-hearted couple (parents), and three female servants (sisters, say) and them helpful sons.” But it’s not family, or community, or the idea of a country that A Mercy will validate. Instead, the novel suggests these concepts are ultimately transitory–like a passage over the Atlantic–and that there can only be a claiming of self.

Throughout the book, some characters gain agency, others die trying, and several lose themselves to grief and loss. But it’s Florens’s narrative that binds the text. She grows from a lovesick kid, desperate to please everyone, to a realized person with a conscious sense of her self. “The beginning begins with the shoes,” she says. “When a child I am never able to abide being barefoot and always beg for shoes, anybody’s shoes.” By the end of the novel she can go barefoot, free, in a sense, the soles of her feet “hard as cypress” – and this New World requires hard soles. And even if Morrison suggests that we need to learn to walk, hard-soled on our own feet, there is a great pleasure–a sad, sometimes sour, shocking pleasure–to be gained in walking for just a little while in these characters’ shoes. Very highly recommended.

A Mercy is now available from Knopf.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Hip-Hop’s Daisy Age

Earlier this week, The Root published a fantastic excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent memoir The Beautiful Struggle. In “Hip-Hop’s Daisy Age,” Coates contextualizes a Golden Age–the arcadian summer of ’88–when a new “consciousness” movement in hip-hop brought together both the discordant militarism of Chuck D’s Public enemy and the neo-hippie soul of De La Soul. Although Coates grew up African-American in an economically-depressed Baltimore and I am white, and was living in Dunedin, New Zealand in the summer of ’88, we are roughly the same age. When he writes, “I was all X-Men, polyhedral dice, and Greek myths,” it’s not hard for me to imagine that we actually probably have at least a few things in common. And while I was clearly in a different cultural place, I owned and cherished most of the albums that Coates cites in his piece. I played them repeatedly, furtively listening in secret to the alien sounds on my Sony Walkman. I can’t help thinking of 3 Feet High and Rising without a warm tinge of nostalgia coupled with a sadness that something so fresh and vital and just plain different probably won’t come out of mainstream hip-hop again–or at least any time soon. Perhaps this is hip-hop’s legacy–20 years after its Golden Age, it’s earned the right to be as shitty, conformist, and downright stupid as any other commercial genre. But I’ve digressed. Coates’s piece is no lament. Instead, it’s a loving tribute to a particular moment, which, for him at least, seemed to transcend the space he was in and extend into all “the ghettos of the world, with their merchant vultures, wig stores, sidewalk sales, sub shops, fake gold, bastard boys, and wandering girls.” In the summer of ’88, I was living comfortably in a lovely harbor town, but the sentiment Coates expresses reached me nonetheless. As corny as it sounds, hip-hop in ’88 provided a cultural education for me, not just about the African-American experience specifically, but, more generally, as an expatriate, hip-hop told me something about what was new and fresh and vital in America. Now I realize that my own early love for hip-hop simply preceded the eventual mainstreaming, commercialization, and consequent dumbing-down of hip-hop. And honestly, I could never have the same spiritual attachment that Coates describes:

“…the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I beheld the greatest lesson of 88, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.”

Where Coates experienced soul music, I heard punk rock. But for each of us, the hip-hop in ’88 was a new kind of rebel music. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed. When I get home tonight, I’ll listen to EPMD’s Strictly Business and try to forget about Soulja Boy for 45 minutes.