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For many, James Baldwin will be most recently familiar from the 2016 documentary by Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro,” — which is the sanitized version of what he actually said in the film. It’s composed of clips of interviews with Baldwin in the 1960s, of newsreel footage of events in America –from white mobs threatening and spitting on young school children to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr speaking–, of scenes from popular movies,  all underlined and emphasized by scenes from the America of today, thirty-three years after Baldwin’s death.  Much of the voice-over commentary by Samuel L. Jackson comes from one of Baldwin’s lesser-known books, No Name in the Street (1972). 

Others may remember him from his first novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain, (my review) or his third, which really vaulted him to nationwide attention with its interracial and homosexual love, Another Country.  Perhaps his essays and social commentary had the widest audience.  His 1955 Notes of a Native Son and 1963 The Fire Next Time are still read and referred to.  He also authored book reviews, forwards and afterwords for other writers, profiles of others, and many, many speeches.  The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, (2010) has a broad selection. 

What he is least known for is his short fiction, of which he wrote little.  Going to Meet the Man, (1965) contains eight stories, three of which were written for the volume, the others for magazine publication.  None stray far from his novelistic and essayist concerns of race, sex, and mid-century America social conditions.  Though much has changed since the time they were written, between 1948 and 1965, and younger, more contemporary, writers have written from more recent concerns, all are fine reading; breaking no stylistic grounds or even norms, they provide both readerly enjoyment and glimpses of lives not our own.

The earliest, “Previous Condition” from 1948,  is a first-person day-in-the-life story of Peter, a young New York actor.  Smuggled into a rooming house by a Jewish friend, he is ordered out by the landlady

You get outa my house! she screamed. … This is a white neighborhood, I don’t rent to colored people.”

He tells his friend he is, “tired, man tired! … I’m sick to death.” Even Ida, a “shanty Irish” girl, and close friend, who takes him to dinner and tries to talk him out of his discouragement, has little effect.  Nor does a trip uptown to a Harlem bar; even there he is an outsider.

A white outsider coming in would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar, perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes.  But the people here knew differently, as I did.  I didn’t seem to have a place.

The opening stories, “The Rockpile” and “The Outing” have childhood biographical elements familiar from Go Tell It on the Mountain, and The Fire Next Time.  The third,  “The Man Child” has only white characters in a strange story of two friends separating over land, finances, resentment, estrangement, and a killing. 

“Sonny’s Blues” (1957), “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” (1960), and “Come Out the Wilderness”(1965) all take place in the artists and jazz scene in New York or Paris with characters dealing with departure and return, comfort and fear, sexual and interracial themes.  “Sonny’s Blues” is the most affecting, and hopeful as a high school teacher deals with his jazz obsessed, heroin endangered younger brother. 

The title story, “Going to Meet the Man,” is far and away the most powerful.  A young white boy, whose father is a deputy sheriff, and ridden by erotic, violent thoughts of “niggers”, is taken by his parents to a picnic; that is to say, a lynching.   Even if you’ve seen photographs of such ghastly events, the story will leave you with an indelible image.

Baldwin doesn’t make it into collections of “the world’s best short stories,” but for many, stories are a better and more accessible lens into time, place and behavior than essays and longer fiction.  I’d go out of my way to find and read more.

Not everyone, of course, reads Baldwin with unmitigated high praise.  Here’s a 1998 New Yorker essay by Hilton Als, like Baldwin a black, homosexual writer.

“…in the novels written after “Another Country” … he never possessed a novelist’s imagination or sense of structure—or, indeed, a novelist’s interest in the lives of other people. Nor was he a reporter: most of his reporting pieces were stiff and banal. He was at his best when he was writing about some aspect of life or politics that reflected his interior self: he contained a multitude of worlds, and those worlds were his true subject.

The Enemy Within: The Making and Unmaking of James Baldwin; Hilton Als

Though I know far less of, and about, Baldwin and his work than Als does, for me, he remains one of the indispensable mid-20th century American writers, one to turn to, in one text or another, yearly, say in August or December, the months of his birth, and his death.