The Unusual Door: Preliminary Notes on James Baldwin and Pedagogy by Eric Darton


Portrait of James Baldwin, 1965, oil on canvas, 25.5 by 21.25 inches, signed lower left. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator. Photo:  courtesy of Levis Fine Art

Portrait of James Baldwin, 1965, oil on canvas, 25.5 by 21.25 inches, signed lower left. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator. Photo: courtesy of Levis Fine Art


Three years before his death in 1987 at the age of sixty three, James Baldwin recounted in an interview for a Spanish literary journal, the moment that signified, for him, the entry into his artistic life.

            ¿Había alguien que guiara? Did you have anyone to guide you?

            “I remember once walking in the Village with the black painter Beauford Delaney. We were stopped at a street corner waiting for the traffic light to change, and Beauford pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. But he insisted: ‘Look again.’ Which I did, and I saw oil in the water and the city reflected in the puddle. For me this was a revelation. Which cannot be explained. He taught me to see, and to trust what I saw. Often it is painters who show writers how to see. And once you’ve had this experience, you see in a different mode.”[1]

            This encounter took place in 1944 when Baldwin was twenty. He had known Delaney for five years and had come to regard the painter, twenty-three years his senior, as a surrogate father and mentor. That Delaney was black, also a preacher’s son, and a self-identified homosexual is, of course, significant. For Baldwin, however, the dispositive factor, the one that allowed him to make productive use of Delaney as a guide on his own path, was that “the reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.”[2]

            The reality of an artist’s seeing inheres in her or his work and, hopefully, survives them. Hence anyone who wishes to study with Baldwin may readily do so. Both his seeing and his pedagogy are ubiquitous in, and integral to, the language of his many published writings and the panoply of his oral records. His teaching is there in the symbols and images he made manifest in his texts, and for catalyzing whatever internal process needs to be affirmed: Reading Baldwin made it possible for me to take pride in being black / to accept my homosexuality / to love my woman / to be a father / to look first and most critically at myself / to accept white people as human beings / to be a writer – there is no end to the testimony.[3]

            And, at bottom, for all the adjectives one can apply to Baldwin, the attributes one may ascribe, and to the historical and personal circumstances that shaped and dictated his gifts, what drives the pedagogy of his writing – even at its most didactic and preacherly – is simply that which he said of his mentor: The reality of his seeing caused me to see to pass, as Delaney often sang, through “the unusual door” into that space where we are one with ourselves and can therefore be one with and among others.[4]

 

In 1948 Baldwin left – in his own description “fled” –  New York for Paris where he remained for four years. To this initial stay in France, Baldwin credits the salvation of his sanity, his coalescence as a novelist and his capacity to return to the U.S. and participate in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity, both in the North and Deep South with renewed energy and courage. It also constituted, for him, a second great teaching.

            For though “no Frenchman or Frenchwoman could meet me with the speed and fire of some black boys and girls whom I remembered and whom I missed; they did not know enough about me to be able to correct me, [it] is true that they met me with something else – themselves, in fact – and taught me things I did not know (how to take a deep breath, for example), and corrected me in unexpected and rather painful ways.”[5]

            Whatever its origins, the quality of Baldwin’s experience of France liberated the breath of his writing and allowed him, after a decade of wrenching effort, to radically revise and complete Go Tell It On the Mountain, his first novel. Partly it is that these “unexpected and painful” corrections also constituted a form of “unusual door,” one which led thematically toward and provided direct experience for his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, an unsparing account of the process by which the narrator’s homosexuality occasions a degree of shame that leads him to betray his lover and, ultimately, love itself.

            When Baldwin speaks of taking a deep breath, it is as both an act of self-nurturance and an article of evidence: proof positive that one is alive, that one is. Recognized as such, it allows one to live with and begin to learn to love the breather born into “our father’s house” and now dwelling within our own. This essential formulation emerges like a resurgent spring throughout Baldwin’s work. It is put forward, again and again, in the minds and voices of Baldwin’s characters and in his own persona, as the precondition for loving others. At another level, once awakened, this capacity for deep breath allowed Baldwin – for all his transcendent tendencies – to find rootedness in the world.

            For any individual, not least a young writer so deeply concerned with the vicissitudes of human love, desire and social life, this carries profound implications. Rather than sudden enlightenment, the cycle of breath serves as a revelation that keeps on revealing. An ancient Daoist text puts it this way: “The breaths of Earth are not imprisoned; all they ask is to intersect each other under the impulse of Heaven. Thus all that breathes in me is Earth – breaths projected toward the one Heaven, for Heaven makes these breaths those of one particular being, with its own destiny and nature.”[6]

            Moreover, this breath “born of the interaction between Heaven and Earth, flows and circulates everywhere; it flows through the body as it would through a landscape or a painting.”[7]

            And then, there is French itself: that most rapier-like and ductile of languages – the firm and gentle oscillations of its flow. Baldwin learned it, drank it in, internalized it. He had to. But, as he and many others have found, the process of assimilating French will seriously mess with your English. For Baldwin it did so in ways that fuelled his liberatory crisis on Mountain’s “threshing floor,” and allowed him to breathe more deeply into each succeeding work.[8] For the mouth teaches the body to speak. And Baldwin’s ear always functioned as a differently nuanced eye: in his telling of the tale one can hear the silence in Beauford’s puddle and one knows that that this silence contains every utterance that the city, whether New York, Paris, or Istanbul, holds within it. It teaches the writer to listen for the silence within each person, a silence that manifests in “ten thousand” things.

 

I want to return to the idea of “correction,” in relation now to another key theme in Baldwin’s published work and public speech: our responsibility for guiding the young, regardless of whether or not said young spring directly from our own blood. Central to Baldwin’s line of thinking is the idea that racism (whether juridical, institutionalized or epistemological), via its pathologic refusal of inter-subjectivity, undermines the capacity of elders of any “race” to mobilize the moral authority needed to meaningfully intervene in guiding our children toward a coherent and generative adulthood.

            This accusation-cum-lament forms a dominant warp strand that helps structure Baldwin’s fiction. In both If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just Above My Head, the respective families of Fonny, and Julia and Jimmy, prove structurally unable to provide the requisite support and simply fail. The children are saved, to the degree that they can be, by concerned others whose leverage is, perforce, extremely limited.

            In his non-fiction, Baldwin addresses what he sees as a slow-motion social catastrophe more directly. Of attempts made to “mainstream” young blacks by separating them from the culture of their communities he notes: “If I can’t find myself with people who know enough about me to correct me, who are not intimidated by whatever it is the world thinks I am, or whatever I may think I am, if you don’t find the people who know enough about you to do that and the people who love you enough to do that, then you are very quickly lost and you become a kind of walking cauldron.”[9]

            The fate of 14-year-old Emmett Till, visiting Money, Mississippi, and killed there in 1955, illustrates for Baldwin an example from the opposite end of the same horrific spectrum: “The adolescent, Till, was murdered by two White North American males – the issue of European emigrants, born south of the Canadian border – for whistling at a White woman.

            “Now in some other place and time – in that universal beginning and wonder of all lives – they might have been able to recognize themselves in the boy, have laughed with him, and at him, and been able to correct him by remembering how they themselves had whistled – in that time now so irrecoverably behind White North Americans, when a woman was not merely White, but a woman and no boy was merely Black, but a boy, when all boys were the responsibility of all men.

            “For the boy was crowing like a cock and signaling that he was proud and happy to be, and have one – which is the very definition of innocence and terror, as all men should know. But the boy was Black and so they had to kill him – of course.”[10]

            In his intimately informed biography, David Leeming writes that the Harlem in which Baldwin was raised remained, essentially, a village, still multi-racial and still imbued, despite its growing poverty, with a sense of community that permitted a practice of extended parenting and guidance. “Parents knew each other and each other’s children, and there was a sense of responsibility for one’s neighbor. If Mrs. Smith saw one of Mrs. Brown’s children doing something wrong, she applied discipline first and then let Mrs. Brown know about it.”

            A kind of informal pedagogy permeated his world, and mediated the harshness of his everyday life. “There was the soda-pop joint and the shoeshine parlor at which he sometimes worked... and Dr. Israel Goldberg’s pharmacy, run for the most part by a white pharmacist called ‘Dr. Martin...’ The children would help Dr. Martin mix and heat up huge pots of a wax mixture, which they would pour into cans and allow to cool and harden before they attached the ‘Dr. Martin’s Hair Wax’ labels. Sometimes Dr. Martin would ask one of the boys to shave him in the morning, as he always nicked himself with the barber’s razor he used.”[11]

            Of his primary school years, Baldwin recalls that his “teachers included the novelist Jesse Huff Fauset... and Countee Cullen – I did not know who they were, yet – and others, less celebrated but part of the same world. Some of my teachers invited me to their homes sometimes for tea and cookies or peanut-butter sandwiches or doughnuts, and I was very grateful, very shy, and thoroughly bewildered. My principal, at P.S. 24, was Mrs. Gertrude Elise Ayer, the only Negro school principal in the New York City public-school system... and, for me, she was a breathtakingly beautiful woman, a colored woman.

            “I was lucky. Mrs. Ayer, and my teachers, Black and White, expected something from me. (Harlem, I repeat, was not an all-Black community then.) I did not know what, exactly, they expected, but a child reacts to the value you place on it.”[12]

            Indeed, he was lucky. But the basis of any real pedagogy is simple: pass on what you got. And know you got it from someone else, and that you yourself come to get it differently and more fully through passing it on. Because pedagogy inheres in the interaction with the other. The practice of serving as the useful object whose repleteness grows the more it is used helps sustain more than one’s own life: it ramifies deep and wide.

            David Leeming writes, and I think this applies to Baldwin’s work across multiple genres, that his method was to “reach consciousness by way of minds” – which seems to me a distillation of how literature and pedagogy inextricably combine.[13]

            But the reach extends in both directions and entails an invisible, yet deeply present third party: the “Baldwin narrator-witness” who, in Eleanor Traylor’s formulation, succeeds in bringing his violent conflict with an abusive stepfather “out of the merely personal.”[14] I would suggest that the question is not so much one of leveraging rage and shame from one discrete realm into another, as of transforming the experience stuck in one’s craw into a narrative that is collective and life-nourishing. The material was there all the time. What was needed was the breath – the opening into reality that changes, irrevocably, the mode by which one sees.

            It seems to me that Baldwin’s narrator-witness serves as the vessel of an immanent “we,” one that fully engages its I and can therefore authentically extend itself toward a Thou. How else could he have faced the responsibility imposed by the reality he saw? How else could he have written what he wrote, the way he wrote it, much less have presumed to guide or correct others?

            Once again we find ourselves at the crossroads. And though the light says “go,” the puddle is too wide to jump over. So we must look down into the water and into the faces of those we guide, those who have guided us, and those who guide us still.

            Then wade, children, wade.

 

Washington Square Park, May 27, 2014

 

This essay is drawn from an untitled book-in-process on the evolution of James Baldwin’s literary, political and philosophical ideas. On August 2nd of this year, Baldwin would have turned ninety.

 


 

[1] Jordan Elgrably, “A traves del fuego: entrevista con James Baldwin.” Quimera 41, September 1984. Barcelona. p. 22.

[2] David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. p. 33

[3] These are distillations of comments gleaned from conversations over the years and in the writings of other Baldwin readers and my students. It is worth noting that the transformative power of Baldwin’s writing is ascribed equally to his fiction and his essays.

[4] Lord, open the unusual door, words attributed by Delaney and others to a traditional song whose full lyrics I have not, at the time of publication, been able to locate.

[5] James Baldwin, The Amen Corner. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. p. xiii

[6] Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine, translation and commentary by Claude Larre, S.J. and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallee. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1995, p. 19. Referenced in Tom Bisio, Decoding the Dao: Nine Lessons in Daoist Meditation. Denver, Colorado, Outskirts Press, 2013, p. 16

[7] Ibid. p. 16

[8] “But I began to think in French. I began to understand the English language which I came out of, the language that produced Ray Charles or Bessie Smith or which produced all the poets who produced me. A kind of reconciliation began which could not have happened if I had not stepped out of the English language.” Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, Co., 1971, p. 40

[9] Ibid. p. 15.

[10] James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985. p. 48.

[11] Leeming, op. cit. p. 11

[12] Baldwin, Evidence, op. cit., p. 68

[13] Leeming, op. cit., p. 101

[14] Ibid. p. 89

 

 

Eric Darton was born in New York City in 1950. His books include Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999, 2011), and Free City, a novel, (WW Norton, 1996). The final two books of his five-volume cultural memoir Notes of a New York Son, 1995-2007 were published in November, 2013. Darton teaches at Global College of Long Island University, Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies (Empire State College) and New York University. Previously, he has been an editor of Conjunctions, American Letters & Commentary and Frigatezine. Darton is currently writing a book-length study of the literary, political and philosophical ideas of James Baldwin. He is particularly engaged by prose that feels as if the writer has used her or his craft to make legible the work’s inherent form.