James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and the Ethics of Anguish
by Carole K. Harris
“Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”
James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation”
In July 1957, after having lived nine years in Paris to escape an intolerable American racial climate, James Baldwin returned to the United States. He had just written “Faulkner and Desegregation” in the winter of 1956 while still in Paris, and his biographer James Campbell believes that this essay marked a turning point in his commitment to civil rights and put him on a path of activism. Back in New York, according to Campbell, Baldwin spent the summer brooding, visiting family and friends, and plotting how, with little money and no car, he could travel South to participate in the growing movement. Both Baldwin’s mother and stepfather were Southerners, and Baldwin, a Harlem native who had never travelled south of Washington, D.C., frequently referred to himself as a Southerner. Over the next six years he took multiple trips South: in 1957 (a journey which produced “A Hard Kind of Courage,” and “A Letter from the South: Nobody Knows My Name”), May 1960 (“Why They Can’t Wait,” “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King”), and 1963. The period between 1957 and 1963 was a tense time in American history when many southern states resisted the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation in the public schools. Author Randall Kenan sees that Baldwin’s “eyewitness experience” of the South, at this moment of huge cultural change, “deepened, enriched, and focused” his writing voice. Writing about the South as an anthropologist would, or as a foreigner or journalist, Baldwin holds the mirror up to southern whites, who perceive themselves as good and honorable people, in order to expose as dishonest their self-professed innocence and denial of racial injustice. “In all his southern trips,” writes Baldwin’s biographer David Leeming, “his novelist’s instincts . . . gravitated to the white minds behind the racism he observed.” With an unflinching eye he gives numerous descriptions of white people in his southern essays: the white principal in “A Hard Kind of Courage,” the white Southerners who speak of love and heroism between white and black in old South at the end of “Nobody Knows My Name,” the white lady greeting her black chauffeur, as well as the white student believing in the effectiveness of the police to protect in Tallahassee in “They Can’t Turn Back.” Two experiences which complicate his role as interviewer or observer of white Southerners may also provide him with a unique power: his family history in the South, and his sense of anguished ethics regarding his commitment as a writer. Where should he place his priorities—in his fiction or his activism?
En route South for the first time in September 1957, Baldwin stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, where four black schoolchildren were seeking to integrate the public school system. “A Hard Kind of Courage,” the first essay to be published as a direct result of this trip, came out in Harper’s Magazine in 1958. It was later renamed “A Fly in the Buttermilk” for the collection Nobody Knows My Name (1961) although I think its original title is more revealing of the unassuming role Baldwin takes in order to probe the courage demanded from all sides in the small drama unfolding in Charlotte. In some ways this essay is unremarkable in comparison to some of his other essays, like “Nobody Knows My Name” or “Notes of a Native Son,” because Baldwin remains so restrained (with some slips of sly sarcasm), but this very restraint displays how even in his prose writing Baldwin retains the sensibility of a novelist who listens quietly, straining to understand the inner lives of his characters. What he refrains from saying to his interviewees is as important as what he does say. The essay is divided into two parts: in the first part he interviews G., a fifteen-year old black student and his mother; in the second part he interviews the white principal of G’s school. In conversation with both parties, Baldwin extends the same attentiveness and presence of mind and lets his interviewees speak for themselves in their own voices without too much explicit judgment. However, by juxtaposing the two contrasting points of view, of the black family and the white principal, Baldwin exposes the so-called innocence and graciousness of the white principal as morally corrupt: an evasion of G’s humanity.
Baldwin first interviews G. and his mother, examples of those King would soon call (in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”) the “real heroes” of the civil rights movement, with the hopes of learning on the ground level about their inner lives and feelings. Baldwin is impressed by the quiet dignity of G. and concludes that he remains so silent in part to “rescue” his mother from the pain of knowing about her son’s harassment at school. When Baldwin asks about what motivated her to send her son to a previously all-white school, she replies: “Well, it’s not because I’m so anxious to have him around white people,” the mother laughs. “I really don’t know how I’d feel if I was to carry a white baby around who was calling me Grandma.” This little joke elicits the first laugh from her son, and the mother, feeling Baldwin’s unspoken solidarity, shares her frustrations about the whole situation.
Baldwin then turns to the white principal of the same school, someone who sees himself as a good person with Christian values, and his sense of solidarity shifts. “He was a thin, young man of about my age,” Baldwin writes, “bewildered and in trouble.” Baldwin often uses “bewildered” or “baffled,” words he charges with sarcasm, to describe the demeanor of white Southerners still reeling in the face of desegregation. Baldwin does have evidence that the principal is a “good” man, “very gentle and honorable”: on several occasions he has escorted G. through the halls as a kind of bodyguard, and he probably was the reason why a white student who tripped G. and knocked him down later offered an apology.
Baldwin pursues the journalistic equivalent of King’s non-violent protest, or non-violent witness, in order to create tension and provoke a crisis in the principal’s conscience. When Baldwin asks why G. is the only black student at the school (in effect, the “fly in the buttermilk”), the principal responds, “I don’t think it’s right for colored children to come to white schools just because they’re white.” Baldwin in turn says, “Well. . . even if you don’t like it. . . ,” The principal interrupts Baldwin before he can finish his sentence and begins to talk, in a defensive tone, about the idea of integration. Baldwin reports:
And then he explained to me, with difficulty, that it [integration] was simply contrary to everything he’d ever seen or believed. He’d never dreamed of a mingling of the races; had never lived that way himself and didn’t suppose that he ever would; in the same way, he added, perhaps a trifle defensively, that he only associated with a certain stratum of white people. But, “I’ve never seen a colored person toward whom I had any hatred or ill-will.”
Baldwin’s strategy is to get the principal to verbalize his views out loud, baldly, in front of a witness. “His eyes searched mine as he said this and I knew that he was wondering if I believed him.” Baldwin does not comfort or judge the man, and he refrains from using some of his signature sarcasm. He refrains, too, from mentioning the little inside joke about the white grandbaby shared with G. and his mother. “There seemed no point in making this man any more a victim of his heritage than he so gallantly was already.” Baldwin’s choice of adverb here sharpens the edge of an already ironic statement; one does not immediately think of a perpetrator of benign racism as the victim. This statement functions as a kind of inside joke with the reader.
In Baldwin’s eyes, the principal is, like Faulkner in his public views on desegregation, “guilty of great emotional and intellectual dishonesty.” To break through his denial, Baldwin applies some psychological pressure by playing on the principal’s desire to see himself as a “good” man:
“Still,” I said at last, after a rather painful pause, “I should think that the trouble in this situation is that it’s very hard for you to face a child and treat him unjustly because of something for which he is no more responsible than–than you are.”
The eyes came to life then, or a veil fell, and I found myself staring at a man in anguish.
Here Baldwin, who had theorized about the white Southerner in his essay on Faulkner, is face to face with a real man in anguish. At the start of the interview the principal fails to face the reality of the situation: he used the phrase “excellent” to describe the race relations in his city; he called the white students’ blocking G.’s entrance to school an act of kidding; and he even omitted the fact that white children in his own school taunted him with the phrase “nigger lover.” By the end of the interview, his eyes are full of pain. To precipitate this change, Baldwin twice accents the pronoun “you.” Normally one turns to the second person pronoun to accuse the other party, but Baldwin uses “you” to sympathize with the principal. He understands on a very human level that the principal hopes to retain the respect of the white students, parents, and teachers with whom he has a long relationship even as he does the right thing by G., protecting him against harassment regardless of his personal feelings about integration. By recognizing this genuinely difficult leadership position, Baldwin acknowledges the principal’s humanity. In return, Baldwin calls on the principal to be accountable and acknowledge publicly the humanity of the black child. As a leader inside the white community, the principal–more than any black leader–has the power to change the hearts and minds of the white students and parents at his school.
Baldwin’s emphasis on “you” suggests to the principal that the “Negro problem” is, in fact, his own problem, a white problem—a problem of accountability. (He pursues this theme with increasingly angry clarity in many of his later essays, including “The White Man’s Guilt.”) Baldwin manages, through the pressure of his measured conversation that climaxes with this gentle moral punch, to bring about a breaking up in this man’s euphemistic point of view.
Confronted with his own contradictions, the white principal, like G. and his family, must draw on a “hard kind of courage” as he begins to examine, however tentatively, his own values and attitudes. He has experienced what Flannery O’Connor readers would recognize as a moment of grace.
“No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on–it’s only fair. Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia. I have read one of his stories and it was a good one.”
Flannery O’Connor to Maryat Lee, April 25, 1959
“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing, prophesying, pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent. Baldwin can tell us about what it feels to be a Negro in Harlam [sic] but he tries to tell us everything else too.”
Flannery O’Connor to Maryat Lee, May 21, 1964
In a letter written to her friend Maryat Lee in April of 1959, Flannery O’Connor refuses to meet James Baldwin in Georgia. “Might as well expect a mule to fly as for me to see James Baldwin in Georgia.” In the same breath, she adds, “I have read one of his stories, and it was a good one.” However unwilling O’Connor is to break with tradition and see Baldwin in person, as a writer she admires Baldwin’s fiction, probably the story “Sonny’s Blues.”
Five years later, in May of 1964, O’Connor changes her tune about Baldwin the writer. In another letter to Lee, a Kentucky native who then lived in Greenwich Village and had directed street theater with black youth in Harlem, O’Connor says she can’t stand a certain type of Negro, the “pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent.” Her language is shocking to read today: in letters to Lee–who poignantly understood the southern code of manners O’Connor was living under but chose to rebel against the code rather than respect it as O’Connor did in her daily life– O’Connor regularly and gleefully assumes the persona of a southern redneck racist. In the 1964 letter, for instance, she probably intentionally misspells the word “Harlem” to indicate such a person’s level of education. Yet, O’Connor may be reacting to Baldwin’s changing priorities as a writer, his shift away from writing fiction to essays, a shift she would criticize as a concession to the times and a sacrifice to one’s art.
Between 1957 and 1963, Baldwin traveled extensively (including four trips South), gave countless interviews and speeches, and met with politicians, including then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, over civil rights. In 1963 The Fire Next Time was published, and articles about him appeared in Life, Times, and Mademoiselle. According to his biographer James Campbell, to understand Baldwin before 1957, you read his letters; after 1963, his interviews. Somewhere between 1957 and 1963, Campbell states in a tone of reproof, James Baldwin the private person became Jimmy Baldwin the civil rights celebrity. In his own eyes, Baldwin saw the civil rights activism as central to his role as witness; even though he always thought of himself first as a novelist, in practice his choice of genre took a back seat to that moral imperative.
O’Connor would probably have disapproved of Baldwin’s decision to write essays on “topical” issues of the day. Consider the case of Eudora Welty’s “Where is the Voice Coming From?” a story based closely on the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers which appeared in The New Yorker in June 1963 just days after the event. About the story, O’Connor comments on September 1, 1963 to her friend Betty Hester, another Southerner: “The more you think about it the less satisfactory it gets. What I hate most is its being in the The New Yorker and all the stupid Yankee liberals smacking their lips over typical life in the dear old dirty Southland. The topical is poison. I got away with it in ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ but only because I say a plague on everybody’s house as far as the race business is concerned.”
Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie, dedicated to Medgar Evers and based in equal parts on his assassination and the murder of Emmett Till, opened in New York in April 1964 just weeks before O’Connor wrote her letter to Lee about Baldwin’s “pontificating.” Reviews of the play appeared in New York papers, which O’Connor may have read or heard about from Lee, a playwright who had met Baldwin several times.
O’Connor may thus have perceived Baldwin as an “outside agitator” interfering with uniquely southern affairs, and in this respect, she shows herself to be a member of her own generation, a white Southerner, like the principal Baldwin interviews, who perhaps believes in integration in theory but does not actively seek to change the status quo.
However, even though she crassly expresses dislike of Baldwin in her letter of 1964, around this same time O’Connor herself shows evidence of a crack in her own point of view that is not unlike the changes Baldwin is undergoing.
As writers Baldwin and O’Connor are witnesses to what essentially “good” people say and do in a morally corrupt system, and they each take their role as witness to be an ethical imperative. Confronted with the gracious manners of white Southerners, O’Connor the fiction writer is as unflinching as Baldwin the essayist in what she records.
Maryat Lee, who first met O’Connor in 1956, sees O’Connor’s late story “Revelation,” written in 1963 (in what turned out to be the final year of her life), to be evidence of a “crack” in her point of view regarding the civil rights movement: “The story is dear to me because it reveals I think the crack that finally developed in her own point of view which even three or four years ago she never expected would happen.” The main character, the middle-aged Ruby Turpin, who thinks of herself as a good woman with Christian values, is a version of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953). In fact, “Revelation” can be seen as a sequel to “A Good Man.” In it O’Connor explores what might have happened to the grandmother–how her perspective might have widened–had she, after having been granted a moment of grace, been allowed to live.
In “Revelation,” O’Connor clearly models Mary Grace, the Wellesley College student who returns home to Georgia over the holidays, after Maryat Lee, also a Wellesley graduate. (Lee later studied at Union Theological Seminary, where she wrote her master’s thesis under Paul Tillich.) “You can have half interest in Mary Grace,” O’Connor writes to Lee in the same 1964 letter as she disparages Baldwin. In an understated way, O’Connor thus acknowledges the influence of Lee, the very person who calls her out on issues of race and civil rights, for inspiring a story where a key character talks back to power. Lee delighted in violating the southern code of manners on her trips South–she changed her name from Mary Attaway to distance herself from her upper-class upbringing–as does Mary Grace, the “ugly girl,” who resorts to violence in her role as listener, radical interventionist, and witness.
The object of her scrutiny is Ruby Turpin, a middle-class pig farmer with the aspirations of a lady, who is filled with racist and classist clichés, which Mary Grace silently perceives as vacuous and morally corrupt. In a crucial scene, when her mother tries to pull her daughter into the conversation, Mary Grace explodes, throwing a book at Mrs. Turpin. She growls out a menacing curse: “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”
If “Revelation” were modeled after “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the story would end here. But the story continues, and it is in the second half of the story that we see the “crack” in O’Connor’s point of view. Ruby Turpin, emotionally shocked and physically bruised by the book Mary Grace throws at her, cannot let go of the verbal insult, which she ponders over as if it were a message from God. She returns home to the safety of her husband and farm, and alone, goes out to feed the pigs. There, in the privacy of a pigpen, she confronts God in a fit of fury: “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? . . . . Why me?” She cannot wrap her mind around the fact that Mary Grace singled her out. Ruby suffers a crisis of faith as we hear her rail against God:
“You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash? . . . . I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy. . . . Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to be a nigger, . . . but I could act like one. Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.”
In a similar position as Baldwin vis-à-vis the white principal, O’Connor as writer/witness holds the mirror up to the gracious southern lady and keeps it there; she turns the tape recorder on and lets her epithets fly. It is not a pretty scene. Finally we hear the raw, racist, and uncensored stereotypes spew from Ruby’s tongue. Her dislike for black people is trumped by her disdain for “white trash.”
Curiously that blasphemous crisis of faith cracks open to a moment of calm: Ruby Turpin is finally wrested from her self-preoccupation and begins to worry about her husband Claud, whose truck she sees disappearing on the horizon: Will he be safe? Will a bigger truck smash into his? Then her concern for her husband opens up to the larger world. By story’s end, in a scene that Brad Gooch, author of the biography Flannery, calls the fictional equivalent of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ruby Turpin sees a vision of “a vast horde of souls” marching up to heaven: “whole companies of white-trash,” “bands of black niggers,” “battalions of freaks and lunatics.” These are precisely the characters that pop up in all of O’Connor’s stories–those without power, the poor, the non-white–and often such a character, a freak, plays a key role in bringing about a revelation. Ruby Turpin joins this parade of freaks. She and Claud are bringing up the rear of the parade, after all the poor “white trash” and “niggers.” The rigid categories about race and class to which she held fast at the beginning of the story are turned on their head.
As with the white principal, however, the crack in Ruby’s perspective may only be slight. The principal gives a strained laugh at the very end of Baldwin’s interview that suggests a reversion to his former self. “I’m a religious man, . . . and I believe the Creator will always help us find a way to solve our problems.” He falls back on religious clichés, and the veil returns. In her vision when Ruby Turpin sees the respectable white people bringing up the rear, she refers to them, as reported by the narrator, as “a tribe of people . . . who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right” (654). Ruby Turpin, always a witty woman, still sees herself and her kind of people as being exceptionally blessed by God.
“I read one of his stories, and it was a good one.” By the time O’Connor wrote this letter in April 1959, only two of Baldwin’s stories had been published, “Come out of the Wilderness” (published in Mademoiselle in 1958) and “Sonny’s Blues.” I suspect O’Connor is referring to “Sonny’s Blues,” which came out in the summer of 1957 in Partisan Review, a journal she would have read. O’Connor would have admired Baldwin’s use of flashbacks, his keen ear for dialogue, and especially, his attention to the details of place. Although we have no record of O’Connor’s views on Baldwin’s work as a whole, she probably would have admired his stories and novels set in Harlem where the mystery and manners of Baldwin’s childhood–the language, music, and rituals of the streets and the Pentecostal church–are vivid and sharp: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), as well as many of the stories in Going to Meet the Man, including “Sonny’s Blues” (1958) and “Previous Condition” (1948). After reading Go Tell It on the Mountain in the summer of 1959, Maryat Lee wrote to O’Connor, “You two have more in common that [sic] I had any idea.”
Both Baldwin and O’Connor were admirers of Henry James. O’Connor quotes James often in her essays in Mystery and Manners, and Baldwin, called the “Henry James of Harlem” by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, left behind an unfinished essay on James and manners. Yet, they seem to take away different lessons from the importance James placed on manners. Baldwin and O’Connor were keen observers of the politics and rituals of manners in everyday social encounters, but O’Connor believed that paying close attention to manners was incompatible with writing about the topical, including the directly political; Baldwin, on the other hand, who could not separate the personal from the political, was, according to Leeming, fascinated by analyzing what Henry James called Americans’ innocence and sincerity, and critiqued the “innocence” he encountered among white Southerners. In many of his essays (“Stranger in the Village,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “A Fly in the Buttermilk”), through his technique of juxtaposing the two perspectives, white and black, on a given topic, Baldwin exposes white sincerity for what it is–an evasion of the Negro’s humanity, as well as a denial of the role of power in American and world history.
O’Connor connected morality to a writer’s staying true to his craft. Of Henry James she writes, “the morality of a piece of fiction depended on the amount of ‘felt life’ that was in it.”
In her essays on writing, O’Connor reveals how it is always through the concrete details of the local that a writer arrives at universal truths, which for her are also spiritual truths; a writer who cuts himself off from the people and place where he grew up–the fabric of his home community– is in danger. O’Connor stressed the importance of writing from inside a community, that is, being grounded in the language and manners of a specific place. She mistrusts when a writer slips into abstractions, and she seems to associate the “topical” with a move away from the concrete and specific to the abstract and general. In “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she writes:
What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth. The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
By saying that Baldwin “pontificates,” O’Connor may be referring to the kind of statements in his essays where Baldwin extrapolates from specific examples and goes on, in the preaching style with which he is familiar from being the youth minister in the Pentecostal church, to give general, somewhat oracular, statements about the history of racism in the United States. From O’Connor’s perspective Baldwin betrayed the limits of fiction by turning to prose essays in an attempt to mold reality. In the process he loses his humbleness “in the face of what-is.”
For Baldwin, however, the topical seems absolutely to be connected to the specific language and manners of his childhood. In “Down at the Cross,” for example, when he writes about his memory of being frisked by the police, the details of the incident are vivid and real; he is not merely slipping into abstract statements about police brutality. Even his “pontificating” passages are expressed in the roaring language of the black ministers he knew intimately from his early days. Whereas O’Connor may read about topical issues connected to racism in the newspapers from an abstract and emotional remove, Baldwin knows them firsthand, as part of the social fabric of his home community. For Baldwin the topical is personal, and the personal is political; he cannot separate the topical from the politics of manners unfolding in the streets of Harlem.
In response to O’Connor’s saying that writing on the topical is “poison,” Baldwin might have shot back that O’Connor, with her cultural capital as a white Southerner from a certain class, has the luxury to avoid the topical, and he often uses the word “poison” in his essays to indicate the degree to which black families have no such luxury. Near the end of “Notes of a Native Son,” reflecting on the elders attending his father’s funeral, Baldwin writes: “It was the Lord who knew of the impossibility every parent in that room faced: how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child–by what means?–a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found for oneself.” Baldwin concludes this passage by suggesting, “Perhaps poison should be fought with poison.”
In “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), Martin Luther King, Jr., expresses his “grave disappointment” with white moderates, especially white ministers in the South. King believes that they, as spiritual leaders inside the white community, have the moral authority to change the hearts and minds of the members of their congregation and are thus vital allies to the civil rights struggle.
My father, Richard Adams Harris, Jr., as pastor of Westhampton Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, from 1957 to 1968, was one of those moderates. He felt challenged by King’s call to commitment and doubted if he was taking his commitment far enough. In June of 1964 he gave a sermon entitled “This Is My Father’s World” in which he asked the question, “How can we be redemptive agents in the current racial crisis?” He offered five guidelines to his congregation. In guideline number one, he recommended that his congregation “keep things in perspective” by giving a “thoughtful evaluation” of both sides. On the side of the Negro, he recommended reading John Griffin’s then recently published book Black Like Me, as well as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” On the side of the status quo, he suggested reading Carleton Putnam’s Race and Reason (Putnam is a bestselling segregationist author), or any editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch. “Neither side,” wrote my father, “has a monopoly on right as neither side has a monopoly on wrong.” King was endlessly frustrated by the middle of the road approach–as was Baldwin in his essay on Faulkner–which he saw as a way to evade taking a moral stand. My father was “reasonable”: by recommending reading seriously a segregationist article and weighing its merits against King’s letter, my father did not squarely take a moral stand.
He inched toward taking one, however, and in those days that already demanded a lot of courage. He urged his congregation to feel, in King’s words, “the stinging darts of segregation” and put themselves, for example, in the place of a Negro parent. “‘How,’ one such parent recently asked me, ‘do I tell my 6 year-old son that there are certain places he cannot go because his skin happens to be black?’” As another example he reported that some members of the church who volunteered across town at the Negro Vacation Bible School had noticed that during picture-coloring time, “many of the black children positively insist on leaving faces white. Is this not a tragic symptom that even their young minds have come to realize their own black skin represents a stigma?”
He spoke of his soul searching: “Lately I have felt an increasing indictment on my own life: what am I doing personally to redeem the situation that we are all so concerned about? I am convinced that I am doing far less than my Christian commitment calls me to do.” He confessed that he knew a lot of Christians who, by joining the demonstrations, were more dedicated than he was, and he had yet to join one. By publicly sharing his doubts, my father was working through something for himself regarding his responsibility. At the same time, he was making an appeal to the segregationists in his congregation. They, too, had the power, and the duty, to examine themselves.
On October 6, 1968, my father delivered his last sermon. One month earlier he had handed in a brief resignation letter. The deacons, as well as the members of the congregation, were shocked that their beloved pastor would leave. In his statement he said simply that he had doubts about his calling. From as early as 1962–the year Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time, the year Faulkner died, the year of my birth–he had wrestled privately with the meaning of his vocation: was he worthy to be called a pastor when he had so many doubts about his faith?
Many years later, when I was in my forties, my father confessed to me that at an early age he had compared himself to the Cosby boys, Bev and Gordon, with whom he had grown up on Boonsboro Road in Lynchburg, Virginia. They had been the ones who had encouraged him to go into the ministry in the first place. They had each founded their own church (Gordon the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D. C. and Bev, the Church of the Covenant in Lynchburg) based on the principles of radical Christianity. Each church was comprised of a small band of disciples who would dedicate their lives to social service and justice, as King outlines in his letter when he talks about the early Christians. Bev and Gordon were visionaries who clearly had a calling and chose a prophetic stance in their respective communities, and my father did not see himself as a visionary. He did not feel himself worthy to be a minister. He confessed to me in the same conversation that he had suffered debilitating depression off and on throughout his life. He fell into a depression just ahead of his decision to leave the pastorate.
The pressures on my father to lead the members of his congregation during this tumultuous time put a subtle strain on my parents’ marriage. In 1961, shortly after Nigeria gained its independence from England, my father’s church had sponsored a Nigerian couple to come study in Richmond for a year. They were welcome at Westhampton as guests. Within a year the couple fell in love with Richmond and wanted to stay, and they expressed a desire to join the church. My father’s congregation split over whether or not blacks should be allowed to become members. It was in the midst of this controversy that my father gave his sermon “This Is my Father’s World.” By expressing his own doubts and soul-searching my father was trying to ease into the hearts and minds of segregationists in the congregation, among them his friends. My mother wanted him to be fiercer and take a clear and moral stand, but faced with a divided congregation, he was a reluctant leader.
Oct. 6, 1968, the day my father left the pastorate, was my parents’ seventeenth wedding anniversary. Within three years they would be divorced. I was nine, my sister fourteen, my brother sixteen. We spent the next forty years asking ourselves the question: what happened?
After months of procrastination, Baldwin was finally able to complete “Down at the Cross,” which became the centerpiece of The Fire Next Time, in 1962, after traveling to Africa for the first time. He visited Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone–three nations recently liberated from colonial rule. In his essay Baldwin charts his disillusionment as a youth minister with the elder black ministers of his own church in Harlem. He is horrified to witness their acts of stealing from the collection plate, especially when members of the congregation are so impoverished. “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theater; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives.” More disturbing still are their hypocritical values. He cannot reconcile their preaching to love everybody when at the same time they counsel Baldwin never to give up his seat for a white woman since white men never do the same for a black woman. By the end of “Down at the Cross,” he considers these memories of his elders from his Harlem childhood against the legacy of colonialism in the newly freed African nations, and he sees a similar brand of arrogance and moral corruption amongst the white Christian missionaries who hope to save the “infidels.” “The spreading of the Gospel, regardless of the motives or integrity or the heroism of the missionaries, was an absolutely indispensable justification for the planting of the flag.” Baldwin undergoes a crisis of faith as he examines his own ethics as a leader in the church and concludes he must leave. By the end of “Down at the Cross,” drawing on the moral authority of his own example to challenge the reader, Baldwin exclaims:
“It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being . . . 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.”
In terms of language and style, Baldwin scholar Lynn Orilla Scott believes The Fire Next Time is “the literary equivalent of the strategy of ‘non-violent direct action’ that Martin Luther King was using in Birmingham to end racial segregation.” As an example she shows that Baldwin’s long list of tribulations suffered by black people under segregation in The Fire Next Time echoes the long list of King’s in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”
When my father shared his doubts from the pulpit, Baldwin would recognize a man in anguish trying to grapple with his heritage. I don’t think Baldwin would call my father, as he does at first the principal, a “victim,” however, because my father risked safety, in some ways, to wrestle publicly with the breaking up of the world as he had always known it. (By driving the Nigerian couple to church every Sunday, so did my mother, in a different way, but that is another story to tell.) The pressures my father experienced as a pastor in the early sixties were not unlike those of the young Baldwin as a writer in the late fifties while still living in Paris. Baldwin confessed how guilty he felt seated at a café, listening to Algerian friends lament the discrimination they encountered in the streets of Paris when back in the States black children entering formally all white schools were taunted by mobs. He always felt a special responsibility toward black children. In The Fire Next Time he recalls his days as a youth minister in Harlem delivering sermons in front of the radiant faces of the children. He felt like he was committing a crime by telling the children to believe in the gentle Jesus rather than shouting at their parents, in his words, “to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize . . . a rent strike.”
“Lately I have felt an increasing indictment on my own life.” My father’s words could have been Baldwin’s own. Their willingness to examine their life and to face history with an unflinching eye links them together as men of faith (and one-time pastors) who do not want to succumb to being “victims” of their heritage.
I included my father’s sermon as part of a college course I teach on the literature of the civil rights era in which we read authors not often considered together, O’Connor and Baldwin included. S., an African-American student with whom I had grown especially close–I had been her professor for two semesters–read out loud a passage of the sermon as part of a group discussion. S. believed that my father was really addressing the fathers in the audience:
“We can kill off the monster of prejudice, too, if we honestly seek to change the climate of the day in which we live. There is no better place to begin than with our own children. Make sure the prejudices with which we are infected are not transmitted to them, crippling their lives.”
Almost in the same breath as finishing the last line, S. realized something in a flash–you could see it on her face: “Oh, when he’s talking about ‘our children,’ he really means you.” I felt a shot of pain through my heart, as if the students could see through my role as professor to my heritage as a child. As if they, too, could hear echo my grandmother’s refrain each time she picked me up from the bus station in downtown Lynchburg, which everyone knew was a black neighborhood: “Take care to keep your purse tucked under your arm.”
Who was I to lead a discussion on race? I had spent some time over the summer scouting out this sermon, and the decision to use it in class seemed promising at the time. But that morning before teaching it for the first time, I felt ill, and now in the presence of S.’s radiant face and the open faces of the other students, both black and white, I felt vulnerable and exposed. This is how my father felt, how O’Connor felt, how Baldwin felt. As writers and teachers we tapped into that terrifying place, those feelings of vulnerability and exposure.
We were witness to the dark weight of history.