James Baldwin: America and Beyond makes forceful contributions to the transnational scholarship on Baldwin's life and works by embedding selected writings of Baldwin within both the national and international contexts that influenced them. The edited book of Cora Kaplan and Bill Schwarz is an excellent addition to black Atlantic studies by providing essays that reveal Baldwin's complex relationships with America, Africa, France, Turkey and other parts of the world. Without a doubt, this volume provides the first extensive study of Baldwin's relationships with the world outside of the United States.
James Baldwin: America and Beyond is a unique contribution to the transnational study of a major African American writer whose works have increasingly received the attention of scholars attempting to link America to the rest of the world, but not to the broad extent to which the essays of this volume have done. Before the publications of pioneer works such as William J. Weatherby's James Baldwin: Artist on Fire (1989), Michel Fabre's Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980 (1991), and David Leeming's James Baldwin: A Biography (1994), the scholarship connecting Baldwin to the world outside of the United States was rare. With Ernest A. Champion's Mr. Baldwin, I Presume: James Baldwin--Chinua Achebe, a Meeting of the Minds (1995), the three books above opened up the transatlantic study of Baldwin's writings with such varied emphases as Baldwin's initial impressions about racism in France, the legacy of colonialism in Africa, and the influence of this knowledge on the African American writer's identity. Complementing these works, Femi Ojo-Ade's introduction to his book, Of Dreams Deferred, Dead or Alive: African Perspectives on African-American Writers (1996) and Babacar M'Baye's essays, 'The Image of Africa in the Travel Narratives of W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr' (2003) and 'African Retentions in Go Tell It on the Mountain' (2006), helped bring Baldwin back to transnational studies by revealing his ambivalent relationships with Africa and some of the Francophone African participants at the 1956 Congress of Black Writers in Paris. The interpretation of Baldwin's works in a transnational framework is an ongoing endeavor that was tremendously enhanced with the publication of Magdalena J. Zaborowska's book, James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile (2009) and her essay, '"In the Same Boat": James Baldwin and the Other Atlantic' (2009), which both show the significance of Baldwin's works in Turkey, beyond the local and international settings in which they used to be confined.
Kaplan and Schwarz's book make tremendous contributions to the above scholarship, since the essays within it effectively study both the local and transnational relevance of Baldwin's life and works. The first six chapters of the book examine Baldwin's life and works as the development of a black writer who always searched for his identity both within and outside the boundaries of America's national character. These chapters interpret Baldwin's intellectual heritage as the legacy of an American patriot who perfectly understood and embodied the exceptional qualities of his national identity to a point that he also knew its limitations. In this sense, as Cheryl A. Wall suggests, Baldwin was a master of the art of 'strategic American exceptionalism', since he 'repudiates in particular the myths and illusions of the American exceptionalism proposed by American studies scholars' while he 'extends this genealogy and affirms the democratic ideals enunciated in the letters of the republic' (p37). Wall's essay suggests the complex duality in Baldwin's perception of America that many of the contributions in the collection also reveal. While he valued the significance of American national symbols, Baldwin did not perceive these identity markers as unique and perfect. For instance, as Wall points out, 'Baldwin was always aware of the connections between Europe and the United States and noted that the principles of democracy of which Americans were so proud were in fact the legacy of European thinkers. The larger question that the American experience raises is whether such a thing as a multiracial democracy is possible' (pp37-38).
Moreover, Baldwin was a firm believer in America's potential to create and enhance a society whose diversity could become the envy of the rest of the world. Yet he was occasionally doubtful about the subsistence of this hybrid and inclusive nation in which white supremacy, sectarian thinking, and ruthless Cold War politics threatened to destroy the foundations of possible democracy. Therefore, Baldwin's diagnostic of American society was both personal and acerbic, since it reflected his desperate attempt to prevent a troubled nation that he loved greatly from going asunder. Colm Toibin captures Baldwin's interiorization of this national predicament when he writes: 'He saw the dilemma his country faced as essentially an interior one, a poison which began in the individual spirit and only made its way then into politics. His political writing remains as raw and vivid as his fiction because he believed that social reform could not occur through legislation alone but through a reimagining of the private realm' (p57). By examining this 'private realm' through the music of Miles Davis and Ray Charles where he searched for 'melancholy beauty' and 'solitary pain' that resonated with 'his prose style and the structure of his novels' (p54), Toibin's essay reflects the tragic duality that permeates Baldwin's relationships with America.
In a similar way, the last six essays of Kaplan and Schwarz's volume explore Baldwin's personal and conflicted evaluation of America's psyche. Yet these essays stand apart from the previous ones, since they also focus on the transnational importance of Baldwin's life and works. For instance, Kevin Birmingham's essay is centered on Baldwin's diagnostic of the anguish of American society within a transnational framework. Birmingham writes: 'Baldwin diagnosed the United States as a global disaster whose epicenter was the individual's nonexistent private life' (pp142-143). According to Birmingham, Baldwin used The Fire Next Time as an opportunity to help America confront its dilemma by establishing the direct links between this predicament and those of African Americans (p143). Expanding this impasse into the transnational sphere, Birmingham shows the important role that Negritude and the 1956 Congress of Black Writers in Paris played in Baldwin's global understanding of the problems facing blacks at the middle of the twentieth century. This transnational focus is apparent in Birmingham's representation of Baldwin as a writer who appreciated how the 1956 Congress 'fueled' his 'nascent interest in collective memory by generating in him a deeper appreciation for collective memory's relationships to the land' (p146). Such an emphasis on land is important since it suggests what Birmingham calls Baldwin's 'imagining [of] a negritude native to American soil' (146). By studying the extent to which Baldwin's participation in the 1956 Congress influenced his perception of his national character, Birmingham refocuses critical attention on the crucial issue of African American relationships with other blacks who were in France in the middle of the twentieth century.
In a similar vein, Douglas Field's brilliant contribution to the book refocuses critical attention on Baldwin's relationships with black intellectuals who participated in the 1956 Congress of Black Writers in Paris. Placing Baldwin's relations with Africa in the tradition of African American writers who had what Ojo-Ade calls the '"love-hate relationship" between "Blacks from Africa and those in the United States"' (p211), Field examines the personal and ideological disagreements that Baldwin had with the African participants of the congress, such as Alioune Diop and Leopold Sedar Senghor. Field writes: 'Baldwin in fact claimed that the participants at the conference "disgusted him", keenly aware that "this meant sooner or later a great clash between myself and someone like that"' (p216). Illustrating Baldwin's apprehension about the ideas of some of the African participants of the 1956 Congress, Field suggests the dismissive attitudes the African American author expressed towards Diop. According to Field, 'Singling out Alioune Diop, Baldwin recollected that the Senegalese writer "frightened me because of his extraordinary way of being civilized and primitive at the same time"' (p216). Yet, according to Field, Baldwin had a somewhat different attitude towards Senghor since, he was 'attracted to Senghor's theories on the lack of division in African culture between life and art', although he questioned 'Senghor's claim that the heritage of the African American is straightforwardly African' (p218).
Moreover, Field's essay shows that Baldwin had a deep appreciation of Chinua Achebe whose Things Fall Apart he regarded as a book about his father (p222). Likewise, Eleanor W. Traylor suggests close connections between Baldwin and Achebe. Using Joseph Harris' concept of 'diasporo (meaning new space for being)' as a 'conceptual and methodical comparative approach [that] clearly has potential for the reconstruction of African history' (pp229-230), Traylor provides a compelling study of the relations between Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Things Fall Apart (1959). Her essay suggests the similar ways in which Baldwin and Achebe appropriate a common language for depicting the pain of living in societies in which the options of difference were limited by taboo and tradition. Overcoming this restriction, Baldwin and Achebe, as Traylor argues, 'restaged profound insights that shatter idols of the clan and had made visible spaces that liberate discourses of the wonderful' (p239).
Kaplan and Schwarz's volume also includes the excellent contributions of Kevin Gaines, D. Quentin Miller and Magdalena J. Zaborowska, which also give thoughtful insights about Baldwin's relations with America and the rest of the world. In his essay, Gaines argues that Baldwin was entangled in America's Cold War politics. He states: 'To be sure, Baldwin could not escape Cold War tensions. His interest in specifying his relationship to America as an African American abroad was fodder for US propaganda defending the image of America overseas. In "Princes [and Powers]," Baldwin notably contrasted what he called the relative openness of American society with the absolute exclusion practiced by colonial societies' (p176). Therefore, Baldwin consciously defended American exceptionalism even if he might have done so for both strategic and genuine reasons. One such genuine reason could be to achieve the political maturity Baldwin gained between his early days in France and the early 1960s when he became more aware of the global nature of oppression. Focusing on Baldwin's experiences after he was released from a French Prison on December 27, 1949, Miller effectively examines the African American writer's failed suicide attempt and his representation of the law in both his book, Notes of a Native Son (1955), and his later-published essay, 'Equals in Paris'.
In a comparable way, Zaborowska's essay provides a persuasive analysis of the transnational meaning of Baldwin's third play, The Welcome Table (1987). Discussing the strong impact that Baldwin's experiences in Turkey had on this book, Zaborowska observes: 'The Welcome Table can be seen as a work that represents Baldwin's Turkish decade, most clearly in its genesis in Istanbul but also in his preoccupation with new literary forms and themes that he first embraced while living in Turkey and that he was to develop further in his later works written in France' (p189). In this sense, Baldwin experimented with multiple cultures and artistic expressions, revealing the complexity that Hortense Spillers nicely encapsulates in her 'Afterword' to the book where she writes: 'Baldwin, then, remained true to what otherwise might have been a stark, if not untenable, contradiction, except that his giftedness worked it out as the seamless fabric of a prophetic commitment' (p243). Baldwin's commitment is visible in the tireless struggle for freedom from oppression that he showed throughout his life and works while incessantly valuing the special viewpoints that his life abroad gave him about the meaning of American identity.
James Baldwin: America and Beyond is a major contribution to the study of Baldwin's life and works. It provides compelling insights on Baldwin's thoughts about the meaning of race, class, sexuality and other important themes during times when he lived or traveled outside of the United States. While exploring these insights, the essays show the constant ways in which America's exceptionalism, ambiguities, racism, and other conditions influenced Baldwin's life and works abroad, during years when he attempted to understand and articulate intricate relationships between both his American legacy, his African American heritage, and his personal identity abroad.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||James Baldwin: America and Beyond|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
|Previous Article:||Post-cinematic effects.|
|Next Article:||Resisting deconstruction.|