READING: James Baldwin’s Another Country

220px-AnotherCountry It’s a kind of rage which builds and builds, until you say something or do something because you must.  It arises from humiliation and injustice that can’t find a place to go where further humiliation and injustice cannot follow.  It is the rage of James Baldwin’s,  Another Country, and it was presented to me in a way I am unlikely to forget.

To enter Greenwich Village in the late 1950’s, its music and literary scene, its racial tension is to feel the pulse of change to the fingertips.   James Baldwin took me in and marooned me there with little to cling to other than his characters.  But this was good marooning.  He steps in very close to each of them and he delivers interiors so understandable, so very human, that sides cannot be taken and lines cannot be drawn.
I met Rufus, a black musician in a relationship with a white woman, when mixed race couples were seen as a betrayal of one’s own kind.  He is a tragic character, driven by rage which explodes into violence and ends in despair.  I met his sister, Ida, an emerging singer, who enters a relationship with Vivaldo, a struggling writer of Italian descent.
In Vivaldo’s section of the novel, there is this:
“She was very, very dark, she was beautiful; and he was proud to be with her, artlessly proud, in the shining, overt, male way; but the eyes they passed accused him, enviously, of a sniggering, back-alley conquest.”
  The language is both eloquent and savage when Baldwin tells it like it is.  While he never gives us access into Ida’s mind, the bitterness and pain caused by her inability to help her brother, Rufus, is pervasive.  Vivaldo, too, suffers guilt because he denies his homosexuality and fails to give Rufus the love he needs before it is too late.
Then there is Cass, a white mother of two and wife to Richard, a writer who she believes has sold out.  She enters into a affair with another friend, Eric, as a means to live authentically.
Colm Toibin says in the foreword of the 2001 Penguin Classics edition,
“In Another Country, Baldwin created the essential American drama of the century in which characters desperately seek to escape from the parody of themselves which has been constructed for them, to move toward ‘a region where there were no definitions of any kind'”.
Is this the ‘another country’ Baldwin was seeking?
Baldwin himself says,
“I thought the white world was very different from the world I was moving out of and I turned out to be entirely wrong.  It seemed different.  It seemed safer, at least the white people seemed safer….But I didn’t meet anyone in that world who didn’t suffer from the same affliction that all the people I had fled from suffered from and that was that they didn’t know who they were.”
imagesBaldwin uses the character of Rufus as a catalyst to explore the reactions of his close friends and family.   The novel reveals the challenges of mixed race relationships and homosexuality in an era rife with resistance to change.  It gives anger, distrust, love, loneliness and betrayal a face and its is difficult to wriggle away from our fears and our failings.  Take this book and read it to the end, love the characters as friends and look uncertainty in the eye.  Baldwin demands it.
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