James Baldwin

Another Country

While he had still be in in the Navy, he had brought back from one of his voyages an Indian shawl for Ida. He had picked it up someplace in England. On the day that he gave it to her and she tried it on, something shook in him which had never been touched before. He had never seen the beauty of black people before. But, staring at Ida, who stood before the window of the Harlem kitchen, seeing that she was no longer merely his younger sister but a girl who would soon be a woman, she became associated with the colors of the shawl, the colors of the sun, and with a splendor incalculably older than the gray stone of the island on which they had been born. He thought that perhaps this splendor would come into the world again one day, into the world they knew. Ages and ages ago, Ida had not been merely been the descendant of slaves. Watching her dark face in the sunlight, softened and shadowed by the glorious shawl, it could be seen that she had once been a monarch. Then he looked out of the window, at the air shaft, and thought of the whores on Seventh Avenue. He thought of the white policemen and the money they made on black flesh, the money the whole world made.

There was some pot on the scene and he was a little high. He was feeling great. And, during the last set, he came doubly alive because the saxophone player, who had been way out all night, took off on a terrific solo. He was a kid of about the same age as Rufus, from some insane place like Jersey City or Syracuse, but somewhere along the line he had discovered that he could say it with a saxophone. He had a lot to say. He stood there, wide-legged, humping the air, filling his barrel chest, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? And, again, Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? This, anyway, was the question Rufus heard, the same phrase, unbearably, endlessly, and variously repeated, with all of the force the boy had. The silence of the listeners became strict with abruptly focused attention, cigarettes were unlit, and drinks stayed on the tables; and in all of the faces, even the most ruined and most dull, a curious, wary light appeared. They were being assaulted by the saxophonist who perhaps no longer wanted their love and merely hurled his outrage at them with the same contemptuous, pagan pride with which he humped the air. And yet the question was terrible and real; the boy was blowing with his lungs and guts out of his own short past; somewhere in that past, in the gutters or gang fights or gang shags; in the acrid room, on the sperm-stiffened blanket, behind marijuana or the needle, under the smell of piss in the precinct basement, he had received the blow from which he would never recover and this no one wanted to believe. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? (pp. 8-9)

New York seemed very strange indeed. It might, almost, for strange barbarity and manner and custom, for the sense of danger and horror barely sleeping beneath the rough, gregarious surface, have been some impenetrably exotic city of the East. So superbly was it in the present that it seemed to have nothing to do with the passage of time: time might have dismissed it as thoroughly as it had dismissed Carthage and Pompeii. It seemed to have no sense whatever of the exigencies of human life; it was so familiar and so private that it became, at last, the most despairingly private of cities. One was continually being jostled, yet longed, at the same time, for the sense of others, for a human touch; and if one was never—it was the general complaint—left alone in New York, one had, still, to fight very hard in order not to perish of loneliness. This fight, carried on in so many different ways, created the strange climate of the city. [...]

This note of despair, of buried despair, was insistently, constantly struck. It stalked all the New York avenues, roamed all the New York streets; was as present in Sutton Place, where the director of Eric's play lived and the great often gathered, as it was in Greenwich Village, where he had rented an apartment and been appalled to see what time had done to people he had once known well. He could not escape the feeling that a kind of plague was raging, though it was officially and publicly and privately denied. Even the young seemed blighted-seemed most blighted of all. The boys in their blue jeans ran together, scarcely daring to trust one another, but united, like their elders, in a boyish distrust of the girls. Their very walk, a kind of anti-erotic, knee-action lope, was a parody of locomotion and of manhood. They seemed to be shrinking away from any contact with their flamboyantly and paradoxically outlined private parts. They seemed—but how could it be true? and how had it happened?—to be at home with, accustomed to, brutality and indifference, and to be terrified of human affection. In some strange way they did not seem to feel that they were worthy of it. pp. 230-231

He was silent for a moment. Then, "You're never going to forgive me, are you? for your brother's death."

Then she, too, was silent. He said, "I loved your brother, too, Ida. You don't believe that, I know, but I did. But he was just a man, baby. He wasn't a saint."

"I never said he was a saint. But I'm black, too, and I know how white people treat black boys and girls. They think you're something for them to wipe their pricks on."

He saw the lights of the movie theater three blocks down the Avenue. The summer streets were full. His throat closed and his eyes began to burn.

"After all this time we've been together," he said, at last, "you still think that?"

"Our being together doesn't change the world, Vivaldo."

"It does," he said, "for me."

"That," she said, "is because you're white." p. 324

4: Beneath them Rufus walked, one of the fallen--for the weight of this city was murderous--one of those who had been crushed on the day, which was every day, these towers fell. Entirely alone, and dying of it, he was part of an unprecedented multitude. There were boys and girls drinking coffee at the drugstore counters who were held back from his condition by barriers as perishable as their dwindling cigarettes. They could scarcely bear their knowledge, nor could they have borne the sight of Rufus, but they knew why he was in the streets tonight, why he rode subways all night long, why his stomach growled, why his hair was nappy, his armpits funky, his pants and shoes too thin, and why he did not dare to stop and take a leak.

27: They encountered the big world when they went out into the Sunday streets. It stared unsympathetically out at them from the eyes of the passing people: and Rufus realized that he had not thought at all about this world and its power to hate and destroy.

29: There was something frightening about the aspect of old friends, old lovers, who had, mysteriously, come to nothing. It argued the presence of some cancer which had been operating in them, invisibly, all along and which might, now, be operating in oneself. Many people had vanished, of course, had returned to the havens from which they had fled. But many others were still visible, had turned into lushes or junkies, or had embarked on a nerve-rattling pursuit of the perfect psychiatrist; were vindictively married and progenitive and fat; were dreaming the same dreams they had dreamed ten years before, clothed these in the same arguments, quoted the same masters; and dispensed, as they hideously imagined, the same charms they had possessed before their teeth began to fail and their hair began to fall. They were more hostile now than they had been, this was the loud, inescapable change in their town and the only vitality left in their eyes.

60: The way seemed longer, now that he was alone, and darker. His awareness of the policemen, prowling somewhere in the darkness near him, made the silence ominous. He felt threatened. He felt totally estranged from the city in which he had been born; this city for which he sometimes felt a kind of stony affection because it was all he knew of home. Yet he had no home here--the hovel on Bank Street was not a home. He had always supposed that he would, one day, make a home here for himself. Now he began to wonder if anyone could ever put down roots in this rock; or, rather, he began to be aware of the shapes acquired by those who had. He began to wonder about his own shape.

He had often thought of his loneliness, for example, as a condition which testified to his superiority. But people who were not superior were, nevertheless, extremely lonely--and unable to break out of their solitude precisely because they had no equipment which with to enter it. His own loneliness, magnified so many million times, made the night air colder. He remembered to what excesses, into what traps and nightmares, his loneliness had driven him; and he wondered where such a violent emptiness might drive an entire city. (vivaldo)

68: "Sometimes I listen to those boats on the river--I listen to those whistles--and I think wouldn't it be nice to get on a boat again and go someplace away from all these nowhere people, where a man could be treated like a man." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and then suddenly brought his fist down on the window sill. "You got to fight with the landlord because the landlord's white! You got to fight with the elevator boy because the motherfucker's white. Any bum on the Bowery can shit all over you because maybe he can't hear, can't see, can't walk, can't fuck--but he's white!"

112: Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone, were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, imposed them on the world, and made them part of the world's experience. Without this effort, the secret place was merely a dungeons in which the person perished; without this effort, indeed, the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness; and she saw, with a dreadful reluctance, why this effort was so fare. Reluctantly, because she then realized that Richard had bitterly disappointed her by writing a book in which he did not believe. In that moment she knew, and she knew that Richard would never face it, that the book he had written to make money represented the absolute limit of his talent. It had not really been written to make money--if only it had been! It had been written because he was afraid, afraid of things dark, strange, dangerous, difficult, and deep.

142: Oh, God, make her love me, oh God, let me love. ---vivaldo re: Ida

172: Strangers' faces hold no secrets because the imagination does not invest them with any. But the face of a lover is an unknown precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself. It is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment.

184: ...each was, for the other, the dwelling place that each had despaired of finding.

254: What she lacked in vocal power and, at the moment, in skill, she compensated for by a quality so mysteriously and implacably egocentric that no one has ever been able to name it. This quality involves a sense of the self so profound and so powerful that it does not so much leap barriers as reduce them to atoms--while still leaving them standing, mightily, where they were; and this awful sense is private, unknowable, not to be articulated, having, literally, to do with something else; it transforms and lays waste and gives life, and kills.

269: They started walking uptown, and east, as though each wished to get as far away as possible from the world they knew and their responsibilities in it. The presence of others, walking past them, walking toward them, erupting rudely out of doorways and taxicabs, and springing up from the curbs, intruded painfully on their stillness and seemed to menace their connection. And each man or woman that passed seemed also to be carrying some intolerable burden; their private lives screamed from their hot and discontented faces.

270: Everything was for the first time; at fifteen or sixteen; and what was her name? Zelda. Could that possibly be right? On the roof, in the summertime under the dirty city stars.

All for the first time, in the days when acts had no consequences and nothing was irrecoverable, and love was simple and even pain had the dignity of enduring forever: it was unimaginable that time could do anything to diminish it.

279: "I don't give a damn if there's any hope for them or not. But I know that I am not about to be bugged by any more white jokers who still can't figure out whether I'm human or not. If they don't know, baby, sad on them, and I hope they drop dead slowly, in great pain."

"That's not very Christian," he said, lightly. But he was ready to drop it.

"It's the best I can do. I learned all my Christianity from white folks."

340: Vivaldo leaned up, looking toward the blinds which held back the jungle. "Eric. How's one going to get through it all? How can you live if you can't love? And how can you live if you do?"

350: "But, Cass, ask yourself, look out and ask yourself--wouldn't you hate all white people if they kept you in prison here?" They were rolling up startling Seventh Avenue. The entire population seemed to be in the streets, draped, almost, from lampposts, stoops, and hydrants, and walking through traffic as though it were not there. "Kept you here, and stunted you and starved you and made you watch your mother and father and sister and love and brother and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes? And not in a hurry, like from one day to the next, but, every day, every day, for years, for generations? Shit. They keep you here because you're black, the filthy, white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music, too, only, keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don't believe it has a right to exist. Now, you've never felt like that, and Vivaldo's never felt like that. Vivaldo didn't want to know my brother was dying because he doesn't want to know that my brother would still be alive if he hadn't been born black."

363: Terrifying, that the loss of intimacy with one person results in the freezing over of the world, and the loss of oneself! And terrifying that the terms of love are so rigorous, its checks and liberties so tightly bound together.

363: Therefore, she too, was marking time, waiting--for the blow to fall, for the bill to come in. Only after she had paid this bill would she really know what her resources were. And she dread this moment--her terror of this moment sometimes made her catch her breath.

385: It was strangely and insistently double-edged, it was like making love in the midst of mirrors, or it was like death by drowning. But it was also like music, the highest, sweetest, loneliest reeds, and it was like the rain.

387: The dream teetered on the edge of a nightmare: how old was this rite, this act of love, how deep? In impersonal time, in the actors? He felt that he had stepped off a precipice into an air which held him inexorably up, as the salt sea holds the swimmer: and, seemed to see, vastly and horribly down, into the bottom of his heart, that heart which contained all the possibilities that he could name and yet other that he could not name. Their moment was coming to its end.

413: Ida to Vivaldo: "You people think you're free. That means you think you've got something other people want--or need."

434: Nearly everyone on the plane knew--for he had been very high-spirited and talkative--that he was French, and coming to the states for the first time; and some of them knew that he had a friend in New York, who was an actor. This had all seemed perfectly all right while they were in the middle of the air. But now, on the ground, and in the light, hard and American, of sober second thought, it all seemed rather suspect. He felt helplessly French; and he had never felt French before.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective, to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place. (162)

She, for very terror on hearing this, had wept; yet she could not deny that for such an abundance of bitterness there was a positive fountain of grief. There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other. Now she understood in this nervous, hollow, ringing city, that nervousness of Richard's which had so attracted her—a tension so total, and so without the hope, or possibility of release, or resolution, that she felt it in his muscles, and heard it in his breathing, even as on her breast he fell asleep. (164)

Giovanni's room

People are too various to be treated so lightly. I am too various to be trusted. (5)

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. (25)

He made me think of home—perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing old with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about it, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say. (158)

The fire next time

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember, most of mankind is not all of mankind. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. (10)

This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. (11)

Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated; only the fear of your power to retaliate would cause them to do that, or to seem to do it, which was (and is) good enough. There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be "accepted" by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this--which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never--the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed. (20)

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him. (35)

White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded--at least in the same way. (39)

The subtle and deadly change of heart that might occur in you would be involved with the realization that a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless. (40)

Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. And this leads, imperceptibly but inevitably, to a state of mind in which, having long ago learned to expect the worst, one finds it very easy to believe the worst. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning--and neither can this be overstated--a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not know what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him--for that it is what it is--is utterly gratuitous, it's not hard for him to think of white people as devils. (49)

Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro's situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure. And it is clear that white Americans are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are, in the main, so slothful that have they become, unable to even envision them. It must be added that the Negro himself no longer believes in the good faith of white Americans--if, indeed, he ever could have. (59)

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. (63)

A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay. (70)

What one would not like to see again is the consolidation of peoples on the basis of their color. But as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle. Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. (70)