By Fred Owens
God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!
Eugene asked me what I wanted for my birthday, June 25. I said James Baldwin. I had read several of his novels when I was a kid and I thought it might be worthwhile to read them again. So Eugene sent me Collected Essays, which includes The Fire Next time. I read a few pages as a warm up to see if my serious reading brain still worked. I often read challenging works during the sixties when I was in college, but these days I often look for something easy and I'm afraid Baldwin is not too easy. But worth the effort.
Baldwin is rich. Here is one section from Down at the Cross, written about his coming of age when he became 14.
"Negroes in this country -- and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other -- are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means they are superior to blacks ...."
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, was published in 1963, about 50 pages, 2 essays. This is difficult for me to write because it is a serious book and I have never, in all my years writing, written a book review. So I'm going to ask people to work with me on this.
I asked Eugene to find a public domain photo of Baldwin that we could use to illustrate the essay. "Whatever looks good," I told him, figuring he would choose one of those deadly serious author poses so commonly placed on the back cover of a book. Instead he selected Baldwin smiling in sun glasses standing next to Marlon Brando. They were friends, it turns out. They even roomed together for a period. And Baldwin is showing a Hollywood smile with lots of teeth. Not that he had good teeth, because he didn't, but you know he had his moments when he knew he was as good as Marlon Brando. Viva Zapata was my favorite Brando film, followed by On the Waterfront. "I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am."
I could have been somebody. I know exactly what that feels like. Brando I understand. Not James Baldwin. I don't understand him. No, that's not right. Let me try and say it another way. Baldwin describes his life and his options as a young black man in Harlem. I know I don't understand it. I got the book out on Monday and raced through the fifty pages in two days. It was intense. But I didn't get it, so I'm reading it again.
In 1963, that was the year of the big civil rights rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Baldwin was there, of course. Brando was there. That's when the photo was taken. It was a tragic time, August, 1963. Kennedy was assassinated in November. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. MLK in 1968. In 1963, when Baldwin's book was published, I was a senior in high school. I didn't have a clue. But I read his books, The Fire Next Time and Another Country and Giovanni's Room. That was a world I didn't live in.
Now I am reading a short story by James Baldwin titled Sonny's Blues. Sonny is the younger brother by seven years of the narrator. Sonny plays the drums and piano in various pick up groups at jazz clubs around Harlem, but doing heroin, which concerns the narrator who wants to help his younger brother find that thing that matters. I am on page 30 of the story which goes to 36 pages..... I don't think I have ever been to Harlem. I was at Columbia University for a Tikkun Conference in 1994 -- from the campus you can look down the hill to see Harlem, but I never went down the stairs.
I've never written about race, couldn't do it justice. We watched the 2016 documentary on the work and life of James Baldwin, titled I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin has a very expressive face and an elaborate diction. Where am I taking this? I was in Africa for a year and married an African woman and we lived together for seven years. What did I learn? I must have learned something, just not much to write about now. I might do better writing about the time Jim Smith and I went fly fishing in Montana, right outside of Yellowstone Park, on the Madison River, full of hungry trout and easy to catch. Now I'm comfortable with that. But the Fire Next Time is not approachable. Well, Mark Twain could not write that story either. He would put Baldwin on a raft and call him Jim, but without the humor. Mark Twain would rip up draft after draft trying to write about Baldwin. He would curse a lot, puff on his cigar and give up. Norman Mailer would put Baldwin in a boxing ring fighting at the welterweight level and the result would be embarrassing. So if I screwed it up I would be in good company.
To be Continued .....