May 17, 2022 1:46 pm

The work of the writer James Baldwin, or the complaints of a native

Many years ago, close to fifty, I interviewed James Baldwin for the magazine Front page from Buenos Aires; when I read the article I almost died of embarrassment. I promised myself never again to interview any writer I hadn’t read about, as I had irresponsibly done with Baldwin. And, as punishment, I decided to read the complete works – novels and essays – of this American writer. In this way, I was able to read one of the best writers in the United States –a fierce critic of his country–, whom I do not place at the level of Faulkner, nor perhaps of Hemingway, but immediately after, among the great narrators and critics who , in addition to those, has produced that land. He was a bitter critic of his own society, especially in terms of the “black problem”, and lived many years in France, but he was obsessed with that subject, because in all those years of exile he continued writing about his country. I think his best novel is Another Country, set in New York, where a love affair between a black woman and a white man, favored by the novel’s narrator, is described with great talent. This week, when I was in Miami, I bought at the “Books & Books” bookstore a new edition of Notes of a Native Son, which first appeared in 1955. This book led me to find out if there was an interracial marriage association in the United States, and there were at least two, with many couples in membership.

The best pages of the book are devoted to the ten days the author spent in a Paris jail, for the involuntary theft of a blanket that very naively placed in the bed of the small hotel where he slept. There is, in the superb pages of that splendid report, a kind of awareness that the terrible criticisms against the United States in the first part, about the American black and white racism, were somewhat exaggerated because, if it were not so, in those ten days of horror the author would not miss New York. The harsh words of the first part about the “black” American and his degradation due to white racism, were excessive, because in New York his “experiences” would have allowed him to act better. The entire text is excellent: the details, above all, and the gentle irony with which it is written, moving away from himself in order to be able to comment more independently on his own situation. Discovering that not only in the United States, but in France itself – the land of freedom – racism was present, was a hard test and James Baldwin recognizes it as such.

Are things better for blacks in America today? Of course. Now no one in North America, even in the South of the country, would dare to dismiss a black man with the argument that “colored people are not served food or drinks here”, which is what James Baldwin heard many times on their land, in bars and restaurants. Today the best universities give scholarships and reserve places for this social sector –Obama and his wife would not have been able to enter Harvard otherwise– and the two chambers of Congress have a good number of blacks in seats, just as there are prosperous industrialists and some colored men of fortune. For example, among all the billionaires in the country there are six blacks, which means that each one of them represents at least one billion dollars.

But the condition of blacks in general has not changed much since the time Baldwin describes. in this book, appeared, I repeat, in 1955, that is, sixty-seven years ago. It is enough to see in the big cities, New York or Chicago for example, the blacks carrying out the most humble trades, such as collecting garbage in the streets, to know that not many things have changed since then. The question is: why would so many millions of Latin Americans want to work there, instead of staying in their own countries? Every day we see that it is not easy to enter North American territory; Trump spoke of building an electrified border to contain them, which Mexico itself would pay for, an operation that Biden has suspended, of course, among other things because it would be practically useless: nothing stops immigration, as is known, and it is convenient that not only the United States United States, also Western Europe understands it this way.

why then so many millions of Latin Americans would like to have a job there in the United States? To become millionaires? No. I think that the vast majority of them, to achieve a kind of respect and ease in their own future and that of their children that they would never achieve in their own countries, where the idea of ​​being a “cholito”, that is, someone who white minority considers itself racially inferior, it would not allow it, even if it had a lot of money, something that, moreover, is rare. This type of consideration, of personality in social activities, is what Latinos dream of achieving, apart from a job stability that they very rarely have in their own countries, due to the ups and downs of underdeveloped economies. We believed that Chile had passed this stage and everything that happens there politically tells us that it was a mirage, not a reality.

On the other hand, all the statistics that sociologists have accustomed us to they let us know that if the most prosperous countries want to maintain their high standards of living – now somewhat affected by the coronavirus – they must resort to immigration. That is why it would be good if this term stopped causing the terror that is frequent and that European and North American countries began to consider the most functional and realistic way of facilitating this human transit.

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, in a very religious family, and was called by his environment to be a pastor. He came to prepare for it and gave some sermons, but his destiny and his own will had much more to do with literature than with religion. And so he became one of the best writers of our time. And although this autobiographical book does not say so, he lived for many years in Europe, believing, the very naive, that here in the old continent racism had been overcome. He himself discovered that this was not the case, in a small Swiss village where he was lent –apparently several times– a house to work. There, collections were made to buy a black African – a savage, that is – and put him in the hands of the Catholic missionaries so that they would Christianize him. The boys and girls of the village, as well as some older people, used to touch Baldwin’s head, and he allowed it, and were no doubt amazed that this strange character thought and spoke clearly.

Baldwin He was one of the best American writers and we would always have to keep him alive by reading his essays and novels, which are usually magnificent. He wrote them at a time of great political turmoil when virtually every writer in America gave his opinion. There is in all his books a bitter and painful background, because he always tells sad things and almost in all cases linked to the racial question, although the exterior is always friendly and even funny, as in this book, which must be one of the first published. © EL PAÍS EDITIONS, SL

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