JAMES BALDWIN, RICHARD WRIGHT, THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE AND CHICANO CONSCIOUSNESS
Our paths did not cross often, nor can I say we were friends. I first saw James Baldwin in Paris in the Fall of 1955 at the Café de Flore at the height of his recent success: Beacon Press had just brought out his Notes of a Native Son.
I arrived in Paris the summer of 1955 as a young Air Force officer to take up my duties as a Threat Analyst in Soviet Studies with U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE) The next three years would take me across Europe many times, around the rim of the Mediterranean, and as far east as Adana, Turkey, where the U.S. had a Soviet listening station.
Because I spoke French I made friends easily in France. I realized how fortuitous my decision had been to study French at the University of Pittsburgh where I was an under-graduate from 1948 to 1952. I moved quickly into minor French literary circles. My French acquaintances made more of my success in poetry than it really was. In 1952 the New World Society of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, published a chapbook of my poetry entitled The Wide Well of Hours.
It was in those circles that I learned my way about Paris and how I came to “meet” James Baldwin and Richard Wright, black American expatriates in France. Wright was already internationally celebrated as a writer of black issues (Black Power, 1954). Like Wright, Baldwin would later become an equally articulate voice of the black movement. In the circles of Paris’ petit literati one always heard about Wright and Baldwin, their successes, their agonies.
After the Paris Congress of Black Writers and Artists, Baldwin fled to Corsica and began the draft of Another Country. It seems to me Baldwin was at his best when he was polemical. In The Partisan Review piece (Winter 1956) on “Faulkner and Desegregation,” for example, Baldwin rose to Old Testament fury in his wrath against Faulkner’s bogus sympathy for southern blacks. Wright was at his best in fiction.
In the Paris of 1956, I lived a double life—that of an American military officer and a would-be bohemian looking for his literary voice, that ignis fatuus glinting always just beyond my reach. By day I tracked Soviet movements on situation maps; at night, I wrote poetry, ambled through the city, peered into the waters of the Seine from which ancient voices spoke to me.
I sought out Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir. Wright became part of their circles; Baldwin would have none of them. They were too existential, he said. Unlike Wright, Baldwin con-tinued to write from Paris about a South he never knew. It was this, perhaps, that led to dissolution of his relationship with Wright who had experienced racism of the South firsthand. Baldwin would later come to know the prejudices of the South toward blacks, later, after he left Paris, knowing that to be part of the struggle he had to be in the struggle.
In exile, Baldwin became a busy commuter to the United States. Wright, on the other hand, became a resident of France, buying a farm in Ailly, Normandy, for his wife and children. Wright spoke French passably. Baldwin spoke reasonably good French. He looked always intense, épée at the ready. For him I was an American officer playing at poetry, probably working for the CIA. I felt uneasy in his presence. He badgered, he hectored. He pontificated about the Negro in America. Bad-mouthed Wright and other black intellect-tuals. Said the Algerians were France’s niggers. Said a writer was witness to life, nothing more.
On those rare occasions, Baldwin and I spoke about the blues. Perhaps it was the blues that drew Wright and Baldwin together. Baldwin wondered how I could know anything about the blues. He didn’t know that Mrs Lucy taught me about the blues. Mrs Lucy played piano at the Black Baptist Church in 1940 when as foster parents she and her husband Ernesto Mendes took me in, during the dark days of my life. Dozens of musicians across the country taught me about the blues. Baldwin was not a musician but he loved the blues. He said the blues were the soul of humanity. He thought of himself as a “blues-singer.” In Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison described the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of catastrophe expressed lyrically.”
Baldwin told me had an idea for a piece about the blues. I said, so did I. Baldwin’s long story “Sonny’s Blues” appeared in The Partisan Review (Summer 1957). That summer, my short story “Chicago Blues” received a Literary award, and the following year it placed first in a “blind” European competition judged by Richard Wright.
That year Wright’s book on Pagan Spain came out. Although the book did not capture the historical forces of African and European cultures that melded in Spain over 7 centuries, I liked the book nevertheless. It would be another piece of Wright’s canon that would influence me later in my efforts to collect the literary history of Mexican Americans.. My work on “Montezuma’s Children” (published in The Center Magazine of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, November/ December 1970) was influenced by Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children. I was dissatisfied with works about Mexican Americans described as “Coronado’s” Children, emphasizing their Spanish heritage at the expense of their Indian roots. “Montezuma’s Children” was recommended for a Pulitzer by Senator Ralph Yarborough (D-TX), who read the work into The Congressional Record 116, No. 189 (November 25, 1970, S-18961-S19865). “Montezuma’s Children was published by The Center Magazine as a Cover Story, November/December 1970; received the John Maynard Hutchins Citation for Distinguished Journalism.
The next time I saw Wright and Baldwin was in 1956 at the first Congress of Black Writers and Artists hosted in Paris by Presence Africaine, the black intellectual magazine founded by Leopold Senghor. W.E.B. Dubois who was conspicuously absent from the conference sent a message explaining that the U.S. State Department would not grant him a passport to travel. James Baldwin reported on the conference in Encounter Magazine (“Princes and Powers,” January 1957).
As the most celebrated and premier American writer living in Europe, Wright was asked by Senghor to invite black writers from the United States to attend the conference. Wright did so through Roy Wilkins of the NAACP. In 1972, I would participate with Roy Wilkins and Margaret Mead in the series Why People Hate: The Origins of Discrimination for Harper & Row. In that program Margaret Mead recalled her Rap on Race with Baldwin. In 1956, Dial Press published Baldwin’s “white” novel Giovanni’s Room. A dozen years later I would talk about Giovanni”s Room in a text about the berdache novel (“The Berdache Novel: The Homosexual in Literature,” review of Numbers by John Rechy, The New Mexico Review, June-July 1970).
For all his talk about Africa and African Americans, Baldwin was a stranger to his African brothers, separated by a common color much the way Churchill described Americans and Britons separated by a common language. Even Richard Wright could not embrace Africans as “brothers,” perhaps because of his disdain for what he perceived as primitive cultures. He was thoroughly Americanized by hot water and flush toilets.
In 1953, Baldwin had written a poignant piece for Harper’s entitled “Stranger in the Village.” I’ve cited that piece hundreds of times in lectures over the years. It’s a remarkable piece of exposition on angst and identity. Unlike Wright, Baldwin seems to have been a stranger everywhere he went, not just in that village about which he wrote. “Stranger in the Village” has become a metaphor about the search for identity. Baldwin saw himself as searching for the light. In the catalog to Beauford Delany’s exhibition at Galerie Lambert in Paris, Baldwin wrote: “Par lui j’ai decouvert la lumiere” [Through you I have found the light].
However bumpy, my life has not been a turmoil like Wrights’s or Baldwin’s. I met both at a point in time that gave me pause about my life. I began to wonder about my own heritage. How far removed I was from my heritage, roaming on a continent half a world away from my origins, committed as I was to American culture, yet searching for that je ne sais quoi. Wright and Baldwin’s respective agonies over race opened for me an aperture upon a vista I had not seen before. In 1956 Wright was 48; Baldwin was 32; I was 30. Quetzalcoatl was waiting for me in Aztlan. But I knew that however dim my light I would have to come to terms with the past and with myself.
My acquisition of a Chicano consciousness owes much to the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In discrete ways each has been instrumental in moving me from particular plateaus of consciousness to where I now stand intellectually, ideolo-gically and politically. Much of that progress has occurred since 1966. But the foundation of the place upon which I stand was constructed between 1954 and 1966, principally during the years I spent in France and my brush with two black American writers from whose lives and works I distilled the essence of what it means to be non-white in Anglo America.
Fundamentally, though, I learned about the awesome responsibilities of the minority writer to his or her group and to society. From my year in England I learned that the mysteries of the human spirit are not ethnic monopolies. That I could be Chicano plumbing the intricacies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet while extolling the merits of Rudy Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.
Whatever Baldwin’s excesses and Wright’s incertitudes, they opened doors of inquiry on the narrowness of the American literary canon and brought to public discussion the role of the writer in sociopolitical issues. Few black writers at the time lent their voices to the black movement. I admired Wright and Baldwin for their participation in that fray. Later, I would add my own voice to those struggles, enjoined by Chicanos, in pieces for The Nation, Saturday Review, The Texas Observer, and other publications.
I was back in Texas when Richard Wright died—mysteriously (though reported as a heart attack)—on November 28, 1960. He was 52. Some rumors blamed the CIA for his death and the exotic drug rauwolfia serpentina, that it had been administered at the Clinic Eugene Gibez. By 1960 I had begun my own odyssey of race, expanding my awareness about the historical context of Mexican Americans, an awareness barely glowing then as an ember but fanned to flame by my passing acquaintance with Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
Over the years I have consistently used Wright‘s story “Almos’ a Man” in my literature classes as an example of black American literature. Until 1970 black writers were conspicuously absent in anthologies of American literature. As were other minority American writers.
I followed Baldwin’s career closely, and as a professor of English have used his works numerous times in my courses. I’m particularly fond of “Sonny’s Blues.” In my fiction class-es I sometimes talk about “Sonny’s Blues and” Chicago Blues” together, juxtaposing their themes, both products of a time when the authors were in the land of Charlemagne, seeking truths older than the earth. Sometimes in still moments I hear the sound of Baldwin’s resonant voice, rhythmic, melodic, rich and full of texture. Of the two, Wright was by far the better raconteur but lacked resonance.
I was in Phoenix when I read that Baldwin died on November 30, 1987. It did not seem like 30 years had passed since I had last seen him. To me it seemed like yesterday. Baldwin was 63 when he died, a lonely voice on the moons of Barzoom, those mythic moons of desolation.
Before the Harlem Renaissance black identity was what the white mainstream said it was; after the Harlem Renaissance black identity became what blacks said it was. The power to say what one is—that onomastic impulse—is central to the empowerment of the individual. Before the Chicano Renaissance, Chicano identity was what the Anglo mainstream said it was; after the Chicano Renaissance Chicano identity became what Chicanos said it was.
To understand the Chicano Renaissance one needs to understand the context out of which Chicano consciousness emerged. Remarkably, Chicano consciousness emerged pretty much the way black consciousness emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. That emergence, most black scholars concede, came from the New Negro Movement which grew out of the Niagara Movement (led by W.E.B. du Boise) and formation of the NAACP in 1905.
By 1915 black population shifts—from South to North—changed American demographics, and Harlem became a magnet in that population shift. Since World War I had cut the flow of European immigration, blacks filled that void in northern cities. According to Nathan Irvin Huggins, black entrepreneurs converted Harlem “into the biggest and most elegant black community in the western world.” The Harlem Renaissance signaled that the black march “up from slavery” had reached a critical mass.
As in the Civil War, Indian Wars, and the Spanish American War, blacks fought commendably in World War I for American values, and the fruits of that participation seemed at hand via cultural and literary manifestations. In 1917, James Weldon Johnson, who had served as Consular Officer in Venezuela and Nicaragua during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations, became Executive Secretary of the NAACP and one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance—which augured the end of black leadership from Reconstruc-tion and the beginning of a much more proactive black leadership of the 20th century.
Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association grew on the strength of black aspirations made possible by the Harlem Renaissance. Black writers like Louise Thompson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer made their way to Harlem. Principal outlets for black expression were The Messenger (established in 1903 by A. Philip Randolph), The Crisis (established in 1910 by the NAACP), Opportunity (established in 1923 by the Urban League), Negro World (established by Marcus Garvey) and The Liberator (a white publication established by Lloyd Garrison Douglas after the Civil War and edited by Max Eastman during the 20’s).
Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University, collected these black voices in the anthology The New Negro (1925) and was tagged as the father of the Harlem Renaissance, a term he coined in describing the literary production of blacks in Harlem during the 20’s. The Harlem Renaissance was a people’s “coming of age” helping white Americans realize that blacks and whites were inextricably part of each other’s experi-ences, facing a common future. The Harlem Renaissance was but a harbinger in the 1920’s of how much work remained to be done in race-conscious America. So, too, the Chicano Renaissance—a term I coined in 1970—is but a harbinger of how much work still remains to be done in race-conscious America.
Copyright © 2011 by Felipe de Ortego y Gasca. Excerpt presented at Black History Month, Western New Mexico University, February 6, 2012. Original presented at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Anniversary program, Phoenix, Arizona, January 20, 1990. Published in Pluma Fronteriza, Part I, Fall 2002; Part II, Spring 2003; Part III, Summer 2003. Dr. Ortego is Scholar in Residence, Past Chair of the Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University, Author of The Chicano Renaissance. And 2018 recipient of the Estrella de Aztlan Lifetime Achievement Award from NACCS (National Association for Chicana/o Studies) Tejas Foco. Photos of James Baldwin used under the Creative Commons copyright license by photographer Allan Warren. Photos of Richard Wright and Paris in the public domain. Cover of “Native Son” used under “fair use” proviso of the cpoyright law. Book cover montage copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.