In the late ’50s and early ’60s, James Baldwin was a gay black intellectual living and writing essays and novels in New York and Paris. I was a low-income white kid living in North Carolina, being raised by a single mother and working construction jobs to save money for college. Somehow I stumbled onto Baldwin, the subject of a brilliant documentary, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro ,” up for an Academy Award on Sunday. No writer has had a greater influence on my life.
My mother was a high school graduate working as a clerk selling socks, ties and underwear. We didn’t have many books in the house; we couldn’t afford them. In segregated Charlotte, one of the few (and very limited) insights I had into the lives of African Americans came through the radio. WGIV was one of the “colored stations” then common in the South. I found it, or it found me, with its music. WGIV was playing Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry when the mainstream “white stations” were spinning Pat Boone. Radio, like the Internet today, could transcend boundaries.
When I was 14, WGIV offered a prize to the first caller who could name the next gospel song. A devoted listener, I was the first to identify “Ride On, King Jesus” by the Soul Stirrers. My prize was a year’s subscription to Ebony magazine in 1955, the year Baldwin published “Notes of a Native Son.” I would have learned about Baldwin for the first time in the magazine, but I didn’t get to read him until five years later.
In the summer of 1960, I worked on a construction crew at a segregated work site in Charlotte. White men were the carpenters; black men were the laborers. (As a summer kid heading for college, I was the exception — a white laborer.) The laborers were paid $1 an hour, working 10 hours a day, six days a week.
By far the best carpenter on the site was a black man named David. Under company rules, he could be classified only as a laborer. But when the project — an eight-story law building, which was very tall for the time — offered a difficult carpentry challenge, the on-site boss would ask David to take over. While David worked his magic, someone had to be on the lookout, watching to see if anyone from the construction firm was driving up. If we sounded the alarm, David would quickly put down the carpentry tools and pick up a broom or shovel before being seen breaking the racial code.
We had an unpaid 30-minute lunchtime each day. We’d sit on boxes of construction material and eat sandwiches, the black and white workers across from one another but having a single conversation. On a few occasions there was a spirited contest to see who could lift the most cement bags, with a white champion facing off against a black champion. I sat apart from all this; I enjoyed listening to the banter, but I was always reading a book, under the guidance of a librarian and the local public library. Here, finally, I encountered Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” and the essays that would become part of “Nobody Knows My Name.”
Before reading his essays and novels, I saw race as a series of discrete issues — schools, employment and so forth. I knew, for example, how wrong it was to force the black men into laboring roles. But Baldwin expressed the systemic aspect of racial subjugation in a way I had not yet seen. He observed that much of our nation’s energy had been spent avoiding race, but an honest examination would show us how far we had fallen from the standard of human freedom we professed. “The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person.” If we are incapable of such an examination, he concluded more than half a century ago, “we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.”
I’d thought that the interactions on my job site had an easygoing quality, but Baldwin made me see the casual camaraderie in a different light. That jovial weightlifting competition between white and black workers felt like something more sinister when I read Baldwin’s penetrating observation of what he saw in the eyes of an older black man in the South: “that he had never in his life owned anything, not his wife, not his house, not his child, which could not, at any instant, be taken from him by the power of white people.”
In some ways, reading Baldwin confirmed for me what I was seeing every day: the extraordinary capacity of the black workers to endure. These were men who lived in South Carolina and rode five or six to a car in the predawn hours to an exhausting 10-hour workday, returned home late at night and did the same thing again six days a week. They suffered the indignity of seeing the best carpenter paid as a laborer and forced to hide his skill from management. Baldwin wrote: “The really striking thing, for me, in the South was this dreadful paradox, that the black men were stronger than the white. I do not know how they did it, but it certainly has something to do with the as yet unwritten history of the Negro woman.” I didn’t have much of a window into my co-workers’ home lives, but everything else Baldwin wrote confirmed what I’d seen on the construction site.
Baldwin altered even my view of my beloved home town. During my high school years, he made his first trip to the South, being drawn to Charlotte by photos of a few young black children walking through mobs to enter previously all-white schools. His essay “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter From the South” was a searing read. “This is a bourgeois town, Presbyterian, pretty — if you like towns — and socially so hermetic,” he wrote of Charlotte.
The gentility I’d thought praiseworthy suddenly looked like something else. “I was also told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ [in Charlotte] were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this.” He saw the South with a sharp outsider’s eye that made him an Alexis de Tocqueville for our time. (Of course, he was also the most brilliant, subtle, witty essayist I’d ever read at that age. The effect on a young white boy of that era is hard to overstate.)
Baldwin reached a snap judgment that resonated with me. “The Southern landscape — the trees, the silence, the liquid heat,” he wrote, “seems destined for violence.” After all, “what passions cannot be unleashed on a dark road in a Southern night!” A nation that averts its eyes from the hell of subjugation — and what subjugation does both to the oppressor and to the oppressed — is one that will never truly understand race.
Reading Baldwin made me see white men, including myself, differently as well. What price were we paying for the inhumanity of the system of which we were a part? Baldwin led me to understand how much of the “race problem” was a white problem. As Chris Rock would later put it, our national problem is not about “race relations.” It is about the fact that “white people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy.”
What I read of Baldwin on the Jim Crow work site helped me make a decision. After I finished law school in the North, I would return to the South to teach political and civil rights to predominantly white students at the University of Mississippi. Maybe I could help us be a little less crazy.