Back in 1985, on the morning of November 23 (a cold, wet, gray autumn Saturday), I woke up happy. At that time in my life, nothing could have been more unusual. But I knew that before that day’s sun had set, I was going to meet James Baldwin, whose body of work (the novels and short stories, his plays and all those exquisite essays) had inspired my own burning desire to write. Baldwin was on an interview-and-autograph tour, which would end up being his last, crisscrossing America after the simultaneous publication of The Evidence of Things Not Seen (a book-length essay on the Atlanta child murders, which were then still common knowledge) and The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction – 1948-1985. On that Saturday afternoon, Mr. B. (as I privately referred to him) was scheduled to appear at a bookshop on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. For the preceding month, each customer who made a purchase at Guild Books had received a Xeroxed postcard-size printout of an invitation to the event. His signing had also been touted in a news story printed that week in November. The event was set for three P.M., and when I arrived at Guild Books just after two o’clock, a crowd of more than three hundred was already crammed inside. A line of people stretched out the door and snaked around the corner and down the block. It may have been the most successfully integrated aggregation ever to peacefully assemble in Chicago (food festivals and ChicagoFest notwithstanding). Blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, Sikhs with turbans and Jews with yarmulkes were all in line, drawn together by the power of the words.
For three years Baldwin’s books had meant the world to me. During the summer of ’82, when I’d transferred from a small college in Chicago to the flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I had brought my interest in the 1960s downstate. Not long before leaving home to enroll in two summertime classes, a PBS documentary called I Heard It Through the Grapevine was broadcast. James Baldwin was all over it.Throughout the program, Mr. B. pored over photographs of America and varied Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s—from the mayhem at Little Rock in 1957 to the burning buses that had carried Freedom Riders in 1961. Myriad other images. As one iconic photo after another was re-examined, Baldwin commented on camera, or quotations from his past essays were articulated in voice overs. The sound of James Baldwin’s voice enraptured me with its splendid variety of tonal colors, its musically percussive rhetorical rhythms, and its soaring narrative power. His voice was the instrument that created what I’d later learn to see on the page as his unique brand of “spoken prose.”
In that documentary, Baldwin reflected on the bloodshed, the torment, and the suffering that characterized the 1960s for him. Up until then, thanks to selectively edited Pollyanna documentaries like Woodstock and Monterey Pop, I’d been deluded into thinking of the 1960s as a Golden Age of peace, love, and granola. Mr. B. had other notions in mind. In I Heard It Through the Grapevine, he spoke of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X; the riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and a hundred other cities; the fear and violence in the South and the hypocrisy and loathing in the North; the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, the generational clashes, and the intractable scourge of racism in these not-so-United States. So much remained to be done, Baldwin lamented.
I was moved and troubled by the man. Especially by his voice. And by those dark, searching, enormous eyes, behind which there seemed to be a great deal of wisdom and an almost unbearable weariness borne of experience and anger with the world’s iniquities.But his writing is what mattered most. At summer’s end, when registering for courses in the fall, I signed up for a class that had James Baldwin’s first novel on its reading list: Go Tell It on the Mountain. It was the one book on the reading list that I reread. Several times. (I still reread it.) Our professor explained how autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain was. That suited me fine. The painful frustrations and striving and love with which Baldwin infused his debut novel’s characters pulverized me.
I delved into the rest of his work. It was my way of surviving the years 1982-1985. I was smack-dab in the middle of a demographic that was courted with equal fervor by MTV, as well as the Youth for Reagan re-election vote in 1984. Yet, I was living on Planet Baldwin.I immersed myself in his first two books of essays—Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name—which had been published in 1955 and 1961. They contain some of his most celebrated pieces: “Equal in Paris,” “Stranger in the Village,” “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American,” as well as his bookish ruminations like “Alas, Poor Richard” (a meditation on Baldwin’s mentor, novelist Richard Wright) and “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” his tough critique and quasi-tribute to Norman Mailer. Later, his novels became my gospels. Another Country. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Just Above My Head. Those novels are drenched in musical allusions and historical references.
Moving on, I read everything I could about Baldwin. There were passages about him in biographies of novelist James Jones, and Mr. B. was usually written up in chronicles devoted to the 1960s. Baldwin became “my writer.”Sometimes, a knuckle-dragging acquaintance would inquire: “He’s a homo, right?” The same idiotic question arose whenever I had Capote’s books in hand. I chose to ignore such morons. At that time, I was beginning to acknowledge that writing was what I wanted to do. The example set by James Baldwin loomed large: not just because of his legendary life, but also because of the range, depth, and breadth of his novels, plays, stories, and essays. He was not only prolific, he was a rhetorical virtuoso—narrating one novel in the voice of a black man; another in the voice of a young black woman; another in the voice of a white man, and so on. He dared in his writing to evoke the fullness of all humanity. I confess: What I loved most about Baldwin’s writing was that he didn’t make me feel, as a young white guy, that I had no right to be thriving on his work and taking it all so personally. Yes, I could see my large family and myself mirrored in the world of James Baldwin’s fiction. The capacious humanity that Mr. B. imparted to his fictional families and all of their despair, joy, laughter and grief, music and love, their hard-fought-for dignity in a hostile world and their innate capacity to survive, endure, and prevail. . . all that mirrored my own cantankerous, trouble-prone, lively bunch on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where in my Ashburn hamlet (one of the last of the Second City’s Irish-Catholic enclaves) there used to be a churchgoing ethos to rival Baldwin’s Harlem childhood, amid an equally tense urban realm of chronic tensions.That’s why I wanted to thank him – for creating a world that helped me understand my world.
So I went to a nearby liquor store and bought him a bottle of Seagram’s Crown Royal. Having read of his late-night carousing in the company of William Styron and James Jones and others, I was well aware of Baldwin’s love for booze.Finally, after standing in line for two hours, I walked toward the table inside Guild Books, behind which Baldwin sat. I put the regal gold-and-purple box of Seagram’s into his hands, smiled, and said: “Here’s for the cold nights out on the road.”“Well!” Baldwin laughed, kept grinning, and extended his hand. “How kind to even think of such a thing.” His eyes shone with delight. The warmth of his smile lit up the room. I started to laugh aloud with relief as he slowly turned the Seagram’s box around, his eyebrows raised. “What would you like me to sign?” he asked.When it was time to move on, we shook hands again. I held on for a moment. Our eyes met. He smiled with friendliness, patiently understanding my reluctance to go.“Someday,” he said, “I’d like to have a drink with you.” His voice. That voice that had startled me after hearing it on the PBS special for the first time… it was low, jaded and gentle, a baritone confluence of church spirituals and the smoke of all those French cafes.Then he waved his other hand in a gentle motion—a gesture that was equal parts greeting and farewell—and said, without pretense: “God bless you.” I had to go. Two years later, on December 1, 1987, I turned on the radio at suppertime. On NPR, All Things Considered was broadcasting a tribute to James Baldwin. Other writers were speaking of him in the past tense. He had died that day in the south of France. We never had a drink together. But I’m sure he enjoyed that bottle of whisky. While doing so, I hope that maybe, just for a moment, he smiled. And remembered.