Thursday, 5 March 2015

Another Country by James Baldwin



“We all commit our crimes. The thing is to not lie about them -- to try to understand what you have done, why you have done it. That way, you can begin to forgive yourself. That's very important. If you don't forgive yourself you'll never be able to forgive anybody else and you'll go on committing the same crimes forever.” 

An astonishing contrast exists Richard Wright's Native Son and Jame's Baldwin Another Country. While both authors attempt to reconcile their socio-political beliefs as African- Americans and artistic vision as writers, their ideologies and aesthetic approach could not be more different. Richard Wright is a polemical writer; he's far more radical, expressing a lot of anger is his novel towards the dominant white society for the racial discrimination against blacks and less optimistic about social change without violent retaliation. In comparison, Baldwin preaches peace and love (perhaps living during the 60's and adopting a bohemian life style contributed to his philosophical outlook); he is more inclined to believe that not only blacks, but all minorities, should and will achieve equal rights and freedoms by co-operation and establishing grass-roots movements, not through violent measures. 

Richard Wright would likely denounce Baldwin as a coward and an idealist; someone living in a fantasy. Baldwin's rejoinder would be that Richard Wright compromises his artistic integrity for the sake of propaganda. Their confrontation would start to get really heated; vituperative remarks would pass back and forth but it is Wright who decides to throw the first punch. However, Baldwin is a diminutive giant, and with quick reflexes he dodges the left hook with relative ease. Wright is now fuming and frustrated with himself. He clearly underestimated this Baldwin fellow, who even as a heavy smoker, still manages to move around swiftly with plenty of endurance. He is going to need help if he has any chance of taking down his opponent, so he calls up his buddy Malcolm X who shows up almost immediately. Baldwin's confidence now begins to dwindle but even outnumbered, he has too much pride to back down. I'm a lover, not a fighter, he continues to tell himself. This is a losing battle so his only option is to run but doesn't get very far before being cornered. All hope seems to be lost and he is about to receive the beating of a life-time when all of a sudden, Martin Luther King swoops in right in the knock of time to save his friend! Dr. King is the voice of reason and he settles everyone down. He tells them that they are on the same side, fighting the same fight and there is no need for this silly quarrel. This is just what they want, he goes on to say. To turn on each other, to reinforce that racial stereotype of us being no more than animals fighting over scraps of meat. How can we fight for liberty, justice, equality and freedom if we have already destroyed ourselves? Baldwin is dewy eyed and doesn't say a word. Richard Wright and Malcolm stare incredulously at Dr. King. Hours seem to pass in silence before Richard Wright finally speaks: You fight your battle Doc, we'll fight ours. He and Malcolm turn around and walk away. Martin Luther shrugs and then helps his friend up to his feet before saying: "Well, that was fun. Ok Baldwin, I'll see you at the Washington Monument tomorrow, bright and early. And try not to be late this time."

On a more serious note, it doesn't surprise me that Another Country was met with much controversy at the time of its publication and was even banned in several countries (Australia being one of them; although one would think that it would have caused more of a stir on native soil). James Baldwin is unafraid to challenge the dominant ideologies of race and sexuality in relation to the African-American experience during the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960's. The novel is very much a product of its time, the verisimilitude of hippie culture and emerging liberalism being depicted with perhaps a little too much self-conscious exuberance, but Baldwin's social and political ideas have lost none of their importance or relevance even today. His influence on the next generation of African-American writers like Toni Morrison is immeasurable. 

His writing possesses a raw intensity, an unflinching immediacy and vivid naturalism that bravely shows the ugliness of human nature. Although it is difficult not to view this novel within a historical context; the explicit sexuality (especially of a homosexual nature), rape, violence, vulgar profanity and drug use must have been incredibly shocking for readers at the time. Even by today's standards, Baldwin's subject matter is bound to raise a few eyebrows. He doesn't hold anything back. The title of the novel is perfectly ironic: Even though these characters live in America, they might as well be unwanted foreigners because they are black, oppressed by a hegemonic white society. They are outsiders, suffering from alienation and find themselves socially estranged in their own country. Even the white characters in the novel aren't immune to the hardships brought on my discrimination especially Vivaldo and Eric who have a homosexual relationship. Everyone shares an equal misery, confusion and despair. This is a depressing novel with no happy ending for anyone. Baldwin's main purpose is two-fold: to examine the America from a primarily black perspective in its most rawest form and to show the difficulties of maintaining human relationships in a world undergoing radical social change. With this novel, James Baldwin establishes himself not only as an important African-American writer, but as a dominant figure of 20th century literature.



This Novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

4 comments:

  1. I've read short stories by Baldwin but never a novel. Sounds like I need to rethink this.

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    1. Please do, he's well worth your time. Baldwin's a brutally honest writer, eloquent, and has a keen insight into race relations.

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  2. I somehow haven't read any of Baldwin's novels yet but it's something I hope to rectify soon!

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    1. Glad to hear that! He only wrote a handful of novels, focusing more of his attention on personal essays and political writing. A very interesting fellow who lived an extraordinary life.

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