In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin frames the crux of his consideration of cultural and personal awareness: “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not think so—and to apprehend the nature of change” (Baldwin, Collected, p.339). This is the core of his vision, the central purpose of his art and thought. In Baldwin’s thought, black musical assumptions directly inform the meaning of the key terms (constant and change). In short, blues distills the constants.
With its foundations in blues, in constants, in what Baldwin would simply call “Facts of Life,” clarified and distilled by blues lyricism, jazz searches options and charts viable changes (Baldwin Cross p.57). Baldwin drew on these black musical assumptions of key terms to shape a powerful, if idiosyncratic, language, one which engaged the evasions embedded in American writing and speech (evasions that took different forms—but bore similar results—in politics, media, and academia). Using “American” words the way Billie Holiday used a Broadway show tune, Baldwin shifted their meanings to engage a sense of experience he’d forged from black life, drawn from world art, and honed in his work and experience at home and abroad. Through these shifts, his work pursues what Le Roi Jones, in Black Music, termed, “the changing same” in the human condition, change engaged with, not in flight from, the facts of life (p.180).
Clarifying the notion of “change” in the previous passage, Baldwin notes the danger of mistaking American ephemera for the constants, the “Facts of Life,” themselves. In Baldwin’s thought, ephemera masquerading as constants become dangerous illusions, “chimeras,” that threaten one’s basic sense of self and life. Of course, as Baldwin’s insistence on the blues suggests, one’s basic sense of self and life is itself threatening, that’s what makes the blues the blues. Threats to this sense of self, then, often come across as palliative devices capable of mitigating the threats inherent in the facts of life themselves. In Baldwin’s mind, people can’t afford such devices, traffic with them is the road to bankruptcy:
I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths—change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears. (Baldwin Collected, p.339)
Baldwin saw either calculated or compulsive clinging to chimeras as the source of a pervasive American evasion of experience. Enter, whiteness.
Baldwin’s most explicit engagement with the way black musical assumptions identify American chimeras occurs in his 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues.” This essay associates whiteness directly with a thoroughly chimerical American dream and pursuit of happiness. These terms, for Baldwin, referred to people’s tendency to seek ephemera in the place of “change in the sense of renewal” precisely as a way of evading constants, the basic intensities—“birth, struggle, death, love”—of experience (Baldwin Cross, p.57). Signaling a possibility inherent in the black musical assumptions and otherwise absent from the American vocabulary, Baldwin points to a crucial surprise, joy, produced by lyrical blues confrontations with real constants (1). He then marks a stark distinction between joy and happiness in his musically inflected constant/change/chimera paradigm:
And I want to suggest that the acceptance of this anguish one finds in the blues, and the expression of it, creates also, however odd this may sound, a kind of joy. Now joy is a real state, it is a reality; it has nothing to do with what most people have in mind when they talk of happiness, which is not a real state and does not really exist. (Baldwin Cross p.57).
Joy becomes possible through engagement with the basic intensities of life. On the other hand, when pursued by attempting to elude the facts of life, happiness accrues in a register of experience that, for Baldwin, simply isn’t real. Baldwin’s guides were many, none more important than the basic, black blues impulse to engage rather than evade the most vexing facets of experience and the jazz impulse to endless improvisation within and around those themes (2). Improvisation? In “Of the Sorrow Songs,” in 1979, he wrote: “Go back to Miles, Max, Dizzy, Yardbird, Billie, Coltrane: who were not, as the striking—not to say quaint—European phrase would have it, ‘improvising’: who can afford to improvise, at those prices” (Baldwin Cross, p.121). Ok, lyricizing.
In his classic essay, “The Changing Same,” Le Roi Jones suggests that the blues in black music can best be understood as the “expression of the culture. . . immune to bullshit” (p180). As his nonfiction writings show, no other American writer engaged assumptions in pursuit of, let’s call it, a musical immunity to bullshit with Baldwin’s intense clarity of vision. Near the close of his 1979 speech in Berkeley he paused his remarks to add, ruefully, smiling momentarily if only to himself, “All this will be, well. . . contested” (3). In fact, every moment of Baldwin’s forty-year public engagement with these issues was contested. When the substance of Baldwin’s vision makes an appearance in our contemporary culture, it still is (4). On the public stage, in the role of the literary jazzman with one foot in the blues, functioning as what he called “a disturber of the peace,” (5) he sought to illuminate the durable, troubling constants deeply embedded in, and forging links between, the public and private life (6).
This skeletal sketch of Baldwin’s musical thought provides a unique vantage on contemporary art and life. Let’s try it out. First, what does Baldwin’s conception of black “style” add to what we see in a viral YouTube video featuring young black men dancing? And, what can be drawn from using Baldwin’s notion of change, constant and the dangerous chimeras that conflate the two reveal in President Obama’s performance at the White House Correspondent’s dinner on May 1, 2010? What’s changed, what hasn’t, what might, and what probably won’t?
* * *
(1) I’m using lyrical and lyric in the general sense of forcing a reality absent from language into language, or for a performative expression of a previously inexpressible experience.
(2) In Take This Hammer, exemplifying such a sensibility in himself, Baldwin said: “I know the only way to get through life is to know the worst things about it.”
(3) Burch, Claire. The James Baldwin Anthology. Regent Press, 2009. DVD.
(4) As the close of this essay will suggest, even Randall Kenan’s insightful and heartfelt “Introduction” to the latest release of Baldwin’s uncollected writing, The Cross of Redemption, can be seen to deflect the intransigently trenchant vision at the core of Baldwin’s work. At the close of his introduction, Kenan opines : “Barak Obama might not be presiding over a color-blind, gender-equal, economically fair, same-sex-love-affirming, environmentally clean, disease-cleansed, morally upright America—I’m sure even Baldwin would eschew that ultimate possibility as a bit too utopian—but I’m sure he’d believe that possibilities for his country were looking up. . .” (xxiii). The present writer, for one, doesn’t see evidence that Baldwin regarded any kind of blindness as a goal commensurate with his vision. And Baldwin would most certainly have been opposed to the shellac with which “American interests” have been defined and enforced by every American presidential administration since his death. Indeed, it seems he largely [and increasingly] saw such abstracted political authority, and the corporate interests it actually serves, as politically disastrous and morally irredeemable. Interestingly, in his last work (unpublished and incomplete at his death), “Re/Member This House: a memoir,” a personal biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, in relation to the contemporary American politics of the 1980s, Baldwin, touchingly, images Robert Kennedy as one among the pantheon of martyrs. Remembering the last time he saw Kennedy, at King’s funeral in Atlanta, he images him smiling, as if in a dream, standing on a hillside, wind in his hair, preparing to greet a crowd of black children running toward him who wanted to touch him. As for his audience, at least as early as No Name in the Street, he’d accepted that he “was condemned to make them uncomfortable” (Collected, 365).
(5) Many places including the conversation with Studs Terkel in 1961 (See: Conversations with James Baldwin) and in the Berkeley speech from April 19, 1979 (See: Burch DVD).
(6) As for revision of terms, as his letters and almost all of his public statements show, Baldwin used the term “jazz” itself most often as a synonym for “bullshit,” sardonically spitting out, “all that jazz” and “later for that jazz.” His deep respect for and friendship with many jazz musicians from Billie Holiday to Lonnie Levister to Miles Davis as well as his brilliant and near-constant use of the deep structure of the blues-jazz continuum, “the changing same,” makes it obvious that he knew the term meant far more than what it evoked in the popular mind.