Reading Baldwin has been, for me, a strange, complex experience. It was one containing a mixture of agony, pride (sometimes real, often false and embarrassing), displeasure, envy, admiration, and profound disagreement. I have confessed this as a warning to the reader who might be expecting a rational, impartial discourse. This I have tried but found impossible. The reason may perhaps lie in the fact that I am, like Baldwin, a negro, and although as a Jamaican I found myself in conflict not so much with ‘the man’ in person, but more with the ghost of ‘the man’—or, if you like, his colonial heritage—as everyone well knows, struggling with a ghost can in its own way be almost as difficult, and as frightening, as struggling with the real thing, especially when there are many respectable people of your own kind trying to convince you that it doesn’t exist. And if it is difficult for a Negro to be impartial about his own condition, it is well-nigh impossible for him to be impartial about another negro claiming to be impartial about his condition.
The truth of the matter is that, as a reader generally, I have grave doubts about Baldwin’s intellectual honesty, and as a Negro reader (pure and simple) I can’t help feeling, paradoxically, that he has, somehow, betrayed me. When I completed reading Baldwin what I felt most was a sense of waste. For Baldwin is quite tragically, intricately and subtly caught up in the dilemma he himself so cleverly, and with such talent, tries to express. No doubt he is quite aware of this fact and a considerable amount of his power may well come from his effort to extricate himself from the very dilemma he evokes. Writing, Sartre has written, is a form of action—‘action by disclosure’. This was never more true than in the case of Baldwin. But Baldwin finds himself in the strangely paradoxical position of betraying himself, and his actions, in his very act of disclosure.
How is this so? The answer, perhaps, is to be found in the very nature of the so-called ‘Negro problem’. There is, in fact, no such thing as a ‘Negro problem’, a quite serious (and self-fulfilling) misnomer. What exists is a problem of Negro-White relations, a very obvious fact which is too often forgotten. If one seeks to understand this problem one must recognize that there are two alternatives one may adopt, implying four possible points of view.
In the first place, one may take the point of view of White talking to White. This attains its most elaborate and, at times, its most sophisticated expression in sociological studies of race relations. This is the position of the ‘impartial outsider’ and its limitations are, unfortunately, not often appreciated. The ethical framework generally has something to do with some vaguely conceived notion of equality and liberal democracy. The ‘problem’ is reduced to statistical terms and its most important aspect—the sheer emotional and individual terror of existing under a system of White supremacy and brutality—is often neglected. Furthermore, as Baldwin himself points out in one of his earlier essays (Many Thousands Gone) much sociology, far from being ‘impartial’, serves an important function in maintaining the status quo. By insisting on studying the Negro as a ‘problem’ it further dehumanizes him, while placating the White liberal’s guilt by proving ‘by victorious social analysis how his lot has changed, how we have both improved’.
Secondly, one may take the attitude of the outsider looking in and trying to see things from the inside. This would include efforts ranging from the quite desperate and spectacular pursuits of works such as Black Like Me,footnote1 to the more modest and genuine attempts made by several Whites to identify with the Negro community in some way in order to grasp what it is like. Again, unless one attains an absolute metamorphosis of character this attempt is bound to fail. A White person can, of course, attain some more intense notion of the indignities and travails of Negro status, but he will always be experiencing it from the point of view of someone socialized in a White world. Mailer is a good case in point. Apart from his somewhat incoherent
Thirdly, one can take the point of view of the insider looking in, that is, the Negro writer addressing his own audience. Unfortunately, this is the area most riddled with mystification and an abundance of false consciousness. For, apart from the novels of Richard Wright and some of Hughes’ poetry, the man form of expression here has been through the numerous messianic and zionist movements (the Marcus Garvey movement) or religious fanaticism of one sort or another, whether Holy Rollers or the Black Moslems. In fact, the only truly sophisticated expression coming from this point of view is to be found in jazz. And it is here that Baldwin has let me down most, as I shall try to show later.
Finally, one may adopt the viewpoint of the insider looking out. Most Negro writers have, perhaps understandably, adopted this viewpoint and it is within this frame work that we must include that much castigated figure, the protest writer. Baldwin has much to say (with most of which I disagree) on this position in the first two essays of the volume, Notes of a Native Son. Here a grossly unfair criticism of Richard Wright is used as a base for a general critique of the protest novel. It is possible to write good literature that is partly protest and a concern with protesting does not automatically condemn one’s work, as Baldwin seems to think. Often it happens that writers are tempted to make their works purely protest, which is, of course artistically disastrous. But this need not happen.