James Baldwin 10: In search of the self
After spending the past few weeks reading and listening to snippets of James Baldwin I have come to the conclusion that much of his writing was concerned with the search for himself and his people. By trying to understand himself, who he is he would be able to understand the core of America which was race. His exile in France was very much part of this search. How clearer things are when we look at them from afar and one is able to make some sort of adjustment or disconnection to the object of our gaze. IN ‘Notes for a Hypothetical Novel’ he comes to the realisation that the white world also contains suffering albeit a cleaner, safer and more polite suffering but suffering nonetheless – the pain of not knowing who you are is an undiscriminating American affliction.
But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didnt know who they were. They wanted to be something that they were not. And very shortly I didnt know who I was either. I could not be certain whether I was rich or poor, really black or really white, really male or really female, really talented or a fraud, really strong or merely stubborn. In short I had become an American. I had stepped into, I had walked right into, as I inevitably had to do, the bottomless confusion which is both public and private, of the American republic. [The Price of the Ticket]
In ‘Notes of a Native Son’ he writes of his search for the source of his father’s bitterness and failure and his own fear that he too would end up bitter and full of hate.
“I discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped kill my father could also kill me” [The Price of the Ticket]
He later goes on to tell the story of his ‘New Jersey” experience where he learned that as a black person you were invisible yet at the same time at the mercy of “the reflexes” your skin colour aroused. In New Jersey he contracts the “chronic disease” which afflicts all Black people – rage, a pounding blind fever of a rage. After being refused service at the American Diner, he leaves and on finding a fancy resturant he enters, sits down and waits to be served. Again he is refused service and his rage boils over. The realisation that his rage was so strong that he could commit an act of violence was more shocking to Baldwin than the refusal to serve “negroes’. Now he has a clear view of his father’s bitterness and the rage of Black folk.