Farewell to a Dream of Baldwin
The Eclipse of the Old School
In the summer of 1989, at a buppie pool party in Southern California I discovered in the writing of Toni Morrison’s Beloved something I had been searching all my life to find. In retrospect, it was inevitable. It wasn't a discovery but rather the culmination of what I had been raised to believe and understand. It was that black mountain my generation had been born to climb and I was experiencing its revelations and horrors as my peers were eating canapés. I had surpassed the base camp of what I was expected to know as a black man of the 20th Century and was now officially on the crest toward the summit. Over the next four years I enjoined 'The Struggle' at a new level. It ended with marriage and James Baldwin.
I knew, ever since reading the tender mercies of Beale Street's Fonnie, that there was in black literature a loving sensitivity. I had almost no one to appreciate with me what courage and grace I found in Jean Toomer's Kabnis, a character whose mind I inhabited innumerable years ago and have probably only written of this one time since. I found in the diet of the Talented Tenth, a great deal to satisfy and sustain galaxies more than what has ever been widely appreciated as black. I have never questioned that I have pierced through the skin game and found that which we call the soul of humanity. It was an expectation of literature I never questioned, and once I heard it said by Albert Murray "Literature is my religion", I understood, with given words, what I had always expected from the given word. But I also knew I had to give back. I knew this from the moment I began being confused by LeRoi Jones as a teenager. His book had footnotes. It was difficult, harder than any book I had ever been assigned. I would enter this world and represent with my writing skills what has become of my generation. I would become the next James Baldwin.
It wasn't until almost twenty years later that I gave up that dream. I came to see what everyone came to desire in the presidency of Barack Obama. Payback. I thought James Brown sung it better, a generation ago. The unity of pen and sword, of writing and power politics fell apart in speeches nobody remembers, and in contradictions unworthy of anyone considered to be the new King of black America. Yet there he sat on the throne, grinning sincerely and then dropping the mic like Chris Rock. I never expected Obama, then again I never wanted a black political apotheosis of black manhood. Or perhaps I simply say that in retrospect because he was so clearly a peer, someone who merely picked the right elevator. My inspirations have been subdued by the ham-fisted calumny of American politics. It ain't beanbag. So my Fonnie and my Kabnis cannot be sustained in such an arena, only sacrificed. I knew even Colin Powell could only do so much, and although I occasionally still wish he had, by late 2007, in the year I won black blogger of the year, I had come to the end of my politics. I was inalterably disappointed. I desired nothing so much as to leave the tasks to others who needed it more than I.
The needy one who emerged was Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man I never met and never much enjoyed reading. Like Obama, I felt that I knew him. We shared a secret language, an intonation and emphasis for all those from that small town called black. Obama went off to Harvard Law, and I went off to Silicon Valley. Young Coates went off to The Atlantic where Newyoricans writ large and the reverse-poetry slams of literature, rather like rhyme-bites of Mr. Barack Smith gone to Washington could generate distinctions for audiences hungry for racial representation. I finally had to admit I lost the taste. Like the jazz that becomes too clever for all but jazz musicians themselves. Like insider jokes between Colson Whitehead, Lani Guinier and Cornel West. Like the war between Bernal and Lefkowitz, the platform was both arcane, elevated, remunerative and all but irrelevant to me. In a snippet of an interview Steven Van Zandt said of the 1960s that greatness was popular. I felt in 2007 that greatness would never be popular again, and thus greatness had no obligation to be. Greatness was expended on mendicancy, or was greatness simply not around? What became popular wasn't great enough for me. I'm sure I said so.
This morning I have reasons to be disappointed in any number of things. This is something I have yet to work out in my personal life. I don't know where it will lead, but I read enough Baldwin to have been perfectly rewarded. With his book "We Were Eight Years In Power", none other than Toni Morrison declared Coates to be the next Baldwin. I was relieved at long last of failing to win that battle royale. The title couldn't have fallen to a more appropriate champion.
The book I am reading at the moment, like many other science fictions, is dealing with questions of the fate of all of humanity. I have become stoic and find most interest in assessing how well greatness fares without power. The fate of the scientist among populists is a meditation on the tragic. Yorick's benediction is all we may merit. The book finds the very last humans discovering that the Universe is a simulation. They had to go to the very center of the galaxy to find out the great projector upon whose screen mankind had strutted and fretted. This journey required a combination of impossibles, immortality and faster than light travel, to make that discovery. And yet it was a non-discovery anyone in possession of those two impossibles would inevitably encounter. It was the nature of reality made manifest by stepping outside of two seemingly omnipotent constraints. I have yet to finish this book, yet I find in my disappointments many synergies with its narrative. Of all the things Coates or Baldwin might write, of all the directions Obama's heft of the sword of politics might take, the imposition of the impossibility of evading race constrained them from finding the nature of the American universe as a simulation.
In literature all meditations on reality require imagination, and the true test of the greatness of literature is how that imagination can create immortality and faster than light travel. The imagination of humanity requires God, without which all of our sciences torture us to death merely explaining innumerable hows without an inkling of the first why. To seek and discover noble purpose, transcendent purpose, is all that humans can achieve wrestling as we must with our earthly constraints.
I don't know why Toni Morrison would dub Coates with the scepter of Baldwin. After all, his book is in the non-fiction section. But it is true that the religion of Obama's popularity is the stuff of narrative and that wishful thinking could be called imagination. The fiction that is race in America does in fact compel us all to defy the innumerable questions of science and find purpose in skin color alone. Race is a powerful god, and I am one of the apostates of its increasingly evangelical religion. As such I have given up the genre in search of inspiration. There is in me no expectation of insight. I cannot accept the constraint that I am black and so the rules of race are not to me laws of physics. My imagination resides a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away, not one you are likely to be considering, even with those given words as clues. And so I am sentimental for Baldwin in what he gave over the years and at last in 1992 when I last read "Another Country". I never read "The Fire Next Time". I joked even when Los Angeles burned for Rodney King that the fire would be out by next Wednesday. I knew then, as I know now that the god of race is an angry Old Testament god who offers no salvation or redemption. So Baldwin's threats were empty as eventually were Obama's promises and as I finally presume Coates' testimony to be. The god of race suffers as do all American gods. If Baldwin was his final prophet, then perhaps enough has been said already.
As an apostate I am trapped to a certain degree by my prior ambition to be an explainer. To aim to inherent the mantle of Baldwin is to meet the challenge of coming up with new flavors of lollipops to seduce children into accepting inoculations against racial reasoning. I might die with nothing of my non-race work gaining fame, but I do eat well. This probably cannot be an epitaph of this sort of writing. It is my enduring compulsion to work against wishful thinking and my fate to have learned to swing the hammer. I was born in a quarry. Rocks ruled everything around me. Hulk smash.
Hulk is tired. Time to sleep now.
Every week, new racesplainers emerge. The racecraft gets tweaked a bit. I’m sick of it, and yet there’s this painful sensation I cannot avoid. It is that people are so colorstruck and the memes of race so overwhelming that there will always only be a fraction of society not in thrall to its dopamine seductions. Black man different. White man different. Me explain. And the crowds line up for the same panto. Boom boom clack. Boom boom clack. We will we will race you. Race you.
I don’t expect that this go round of explication will do much for quoting Baldwin or any two dozen black American writers. American culture has been subsumed into race games now being made explicit by commercial interests. I imagine that I cannot expect to find any music by John Coltrane played without a multicultural subtext, fine print or disclaimer about his blackness. It seems people are truly that desperate for racial identification, as they are for political identification. Sometimes a saxophone is just a saxophone, sublime as it may be played. Do we have room in our imaginations for anything but racial implications? I’m sure that some fraction of us do, but we are pulled into the mire. Look at me squirming uncomfortably surrounded by all this racial muck. I am not afraid to embrace the suck, I’m just tired of it. This is how racism annoys me, by its ability, like any false narrative to simplify the complex, to extrapolate to the masses for the masses, to defy reason and subtlety and by so doing invite interminable debunking, redirecting and other herculean efforts at racesplaining.
Someone once told me that brains are a cheap commodity. It’s probably true. We don’t employ brains to engineer solutions so much as we do to explain problems. We Americans analyze the shit out everything, but the decisions are still made by boards of directors in compromise. What I’m trying to tell you is that I’m not an expert to be called forth to testify for the satisfaction of the powers that be. I am going to continue to write, not to be Baldwin or approximate Toomer or compete with Coates or to become head Negro in charge of anything. That would necessitate me looking back and always situating myself against a black background. I’m not hungry for that title, so I’m not in that ring, but I just may throw a few knockout punches along the way.