[James Baldwin (1924–1987) in 1975.]

James Baldwin, writer & movie lover, in words & film.

The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin. Vintage, 127 pp.

It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of the camera is the language of our dreams.— The Devil Finds Work

I’m always circling back to James Baldwin. My latest return, reading The Devil Finds Work, his essays on American cinema, was spurred by watching the recent documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro. I found the film, as a work of history, of racial reconsideration, of brilliantly structured art, quite literally stunning. Based loosely on Baldwin’s unrealized plan to write a book about three slain friends—civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. It opened nationwide on February 3, and I saw it shortly afterward in a screening at Ohio State. I’ve been trying since then to watch it again. The film’s power derives, in large part, from its periodic juxtaposition of images of American racists of another era with those who’ve gaped and japed at recent rallies.

[Watching movies while black.]

Such a stinky revelation of human insufficiency. Hence the timeliness of Baldwin’s urgent message that race is America’s story. Race is where our nation’s transcendent ideals meet the angels and demons of human nature. Is America only an accident of its riches or is it an avatar of the expanding human spirit?

Baldwin sank his teeth in such foundational issues. Which is partly what makes him one of America’s greatest writers. He loved America and its culture, but was an outsider—made doubly so by his race and his homosexuality—and he wrote in fierce, profound clarity and despair. The Devil Finds Work shows you what it’s like for such a man to consider movies he loves and ones he hates. It’s a racial and social deconstruction of American cinema, and absorbing for its prose as well as for its intellectual and moral acuity.

How could he remain the kid rooting for the cowboys against the Indians when, to his horror, he realized he was rooting for his own enemy?

[A face-off in Little Rock in 1959 over school desegregation.]

James Baldwin’s halting prose style: a mind under pressure.

His style of many clauses slows Baldwin’s delivery, making his halting considerations appear thoughtful, hard-won, precise; the result of an intelligence determined to think and perceive clearly and get its truths down. An elegant appeal to the judicious and fair-minded, to the best in us. Sometimes, though, he rushes forward in flat successive clauses. Or throws in a punchy line for impact and rhythm.

Baldwin writes again in The Devil Finds Work of the young white schoolteacher he portrays in America’s greatest essay, “Notes of a Native Son.” He was ten when she saw his genius and became his patron:

But Bill Miller—her name was Orilla, we called her Bill—was not white for me in the way, for example, that Joan Crawford was white, in the way that the landlords and the storekeepers and the cops and most of my teachers were white. She didn’t baffle me that way and she never frightened me and she never lied to me. . . .

I was a child, of course, and rather unsophisticated. I don’t seem ever to have had any innate need (or, indeed, any innate ability) to distrust people: and so I took Bill Miller as she was, or as she appeared to be to me. Yet, the difference between Miss Miller and other white people . . . had to have had a profound and bewildering effect on my mind. Bill Miller was not like the cops who had already beaten me up, she was not like the landlords who called me nigger, she was not like the shopkeepers who laughed at me. . . .

From Miss Miller, therefore, I began to suspect that white people did not act as they did because they were white, but for some other reason,  and I began to try to locate and understand the reason. She too, anyway, was treated like a nigger, especially by the cops, and she had no love for landlords.

Reading The Devil Finds Work I was pleased to discover that Baldwin is the source of the refrain “people who think they are white” in Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me (reviewed). Here is its first use, in Baldwin’s analysis of In the Heat of the Night:

And nothing, alas, has been made possible by this obligatory, fade-out kiss, this preposterous adventure: except that white Americans have been urged to continue dreaming and black Americans have been alerted to the necessity of waking up. People who cannot escape thinking of themselves as white are poorly equipped, if equipped at all, to consider the meaning of black: people who know so little about themselves can face very little in another: and one dare hope for nothing from friends like these.

When James Baldwin’s savory style becomes a stutter.

[In 1975, photographed by Anthony Barboza/Getty.]

As a “stylist,” Baldwin is by definition original and extreme. I think of Hemingway’s declaration about his own contrasting style, visual and telegraphic: what people see and imitate is the writer’s awkwardness in trying to do what he has difficulty achieving. Style as failure?

For his part, Baldwin seems to be trying to convey all shadings of a matter, not just its broad black-and-white outlines. His syntax sometimes feels almost tortured as he gropes toward a truth—the way poets do—from all angles, loathe to always approach something so large yet so exquisitely complex by direct assault. His sentences reflect his torturous experience as a black American—style arising from experience and substance to a rare degree.

He relates in The Devil Finds Work being questioned by two FBI agents in Woodstock, NY, in 1945. They were looking for a black suspect and thought Baldwin might know him. They marched him out of a diner and stood him against a wall:

They conveyed, very vividly, what they would do to me if I did not tell them the truth—what they would do to smart niggers like me. (I was a smart nigger because I worked, part time, as an artists’ model, and lived in an artists’ colony, and had a typewriter in my shack.) My ass would be in a sling—this was among the gentler warnings. They frightened me, and they humiliated me—it was like being spat on, or pissed on, or gang-raped—but they made me hate them, too, with a hatred like hot ice, and all I knew, simply, was that, if I could figure out what they wanted, nothing could induce me to give it to them.

Speaking the truth—not to his tormentors but to us—in fiercely correct prose, was Baldwin’s answer. To savor his style is to thrill to the way it influences one’s own more ordinary effort. But I need a fresh mind to properly read him. And his two-steps-forward-one-back sentences weary some readers, especially when they become fussy. Here in The Devil Finds Work he’s discussing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:

A thirty-seven-year-old black doctor, for whom the word “prodigy” is simply ridiculously inadequate, has met a white girl somewhere in his travels, and they have come, together, to the home of the girl’s parents, in San Francisco, to announce their intention to marry each other.

His occasional stutter-step notwithstanding, it’s a powerful essay. Maybe I’d be halting too if I were seeing, in this self-congratulatory Hollywood movie, “the American self-evasion, which is all that this country has as history.” The doctor has had “to become a living freak,” Baldwin observes of his encyclopedic attainment of knowledge, to be seen by “those who think of themselves as white, and imagine, therefore, that they control reality and rule the world.”

Writing of the “mindless and hysterical banality” of the evil in The Exorcist, Baldwin reveals his own feeling of insufficiency before the “heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” Any human’s freedom carries the almost unbearable burden of honestly confronting one’s failure to be fully human. But there’s hope:

To encounter oneself is to encounter the other: and this is love. If I know that my soul trembles, I know that yours does, too: and if I can respect this, both of us can live.

Remarkable clips on YouTube capture Baldwin & his times.

Baldwin’s impassioned confrontation of a white incrementalist on the Dick Cavett show, in June 1968, remains riveting. He’s always mesmerizing to watch, but consider the context. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two months before; Robert F. Kennedy had fallen eight days prior. I Am Not Your Negro features this appearance, including Baldwin’s brief one-on-one with Cavett, memorable for the host’s panicked eyes in the face of Baldwin’s outrage. I felt for Cavett, so progressive in bringing intellectuals and persons of color to TV, but his fear captures that uneasy time. Tempers have since cooled, but how far we have come in the intervening 49 years?

Three years before, Baldwin, then 41, gave a remarkable speech at Cambridge University on the question “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Clips were used in I Am Not Your Negro, including his startled response when he sat down and thunderous applause became a standing ovation, unprecedented at the Cambridge Union, a debating society.

The event was billed as a debate between him and the conservative movement’s “intellectual,” William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, then 40, rose and gave his usual fatuous address dripping with condescension. Baldwin’s “copious literature of protest,” he said, has heaped scorn on America, which has simply repaid him in kind. In trying to reduce Baldwin to peevishness, Buckley even alleges that Baldwin was protected from due backlash criticism because of his race. Negroes are better off in America than they are any place else, Buckley says, adding that many of their problems are their fault. If it comes to “confrontation,” he warned, whites are ready to “fight the issue . . . on beaches and on hills and on landing grounds.”

In a word, pitiful, this exquisitely educated man of privilege. Baldwin, who did not attend college, wasn’t the only writer or thinker to take apart Buckley—Noam Chomsky eviscerated Buckley in his one appearance on Buckley’s TV show. But in the conservative mind Buckley staggers on, zombielike, as a thinker.

Baldwin’s subject, his great subject, especially in his nonfiction, was race. Except his concern was even deeper and more egalitarian than that: he saw, pointed to, and ultimately was obsessed about the quality in humanity itself that made race an issue. This is what gave Baldwin the moral high ground, not just the particulars of slavery and subsequent injustices but the damage done on all sides by racism. A pagan is one who won’t grant you his God—and such exclusion is the bigot’s essence too. One who narrows his clan (conveniently using skin color, ethnicity, religion, nationality) to exclude, instead of granting and together widening your shared humanity.

[52 years ago: moral acuity meets vacuity. Baldwin speaks at 14:09, followed by Buckley. Baldwin was voted by Cambridge Union members to have won the question overwhelmingly, that the “American dream is at the expense of Negroes.”]


  • I’m not a strong debater, have never been a member of a debate society, or done more than practice rhetoric in the comparative isolation of the personal essay or the literary essay, or sometimes in poems. What a subject to have to debate, I feel, not just a political position, or an artistic slogan, but one’s essential human grandeur and equality! Baldwin simply overmatched Buckley.

  • I am so eager to see I Am Not Your Negro, and I’m grateful to you, Richard, for sharing these clips, which I know will enhance my understanding of the film when I finally see it.

    Buckley’s argument in the debate, and Nathan Glazer’s, live on in this recent post. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/the-crisis-of-western-civ.html?_r=0 What do you think Baldwin would say?

    • Richard says:

      Shirley, I loved HALF of David Brooks’s column on Glazer’s ideas—totally right about the Enlightenment tradition—BUT totally and utterly wrong in blaming universities. That’s a pitiful attempt at cause and effect. Humans have suffered a great crisis in self esteem from the revolutionary ideas of Darwin and Freud and from the devastation of two World Wars. We need much longer to metabolize such blows than we’ve had.

      As for Baldwin, I’ll put him confidently on my side! His reasoning, wisdom, and morality were rooted in the Bible, a far older repository of, and attempt at, human wisdom than even the Enlightenment, which absorbed core biblical precepts. Our notion of God is still evolving. I reckon that 25 percent believe humans are bad at the core, 25 percent ARE bad at the core, and 50 percent know in their bones that humans are spiritual, unusual creatures—despite the lip service many pay to cynical and superficial views. No other species yearns for justice and mercy, or admittedly needs to, but ours is a sacred mission and continues. We’re in the midst of it.

  • LanieTankard says:

    Wow, kudos, Richard! Well done! And I must say, I thought I was going to be editing an article this afternoon but I’ve just spent an hour mesmerized by that Baldwin/Buckley debate. Couldn’t pull myself away. I think it profoundly underscores how much we need eloquence in society, even when one does not agree with the ideas. And we are sorely missing eloquence today. Every time I walk through the Austin airport past the statue of Barbara Jordan, I wonder where we lost it.

    • Richard says:

      Such an interesting take on this, Lanie. Yes, Baldwin wasn’t just full of emotion, he was eloquent—in speech as in writing. I too find that a compelling quality, for everything it implies, especially long, deep thought, learning from life and literature, and questioning.

  • dclaud says:

    Richard: Thanks for this sharp and insightful analysis. You do a great job of deconstructing really good prose and sharing the lessons you learned from it. Each time I read something like this, it makes me pause and invest more time in my own work. Thanks.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, David—another too-long post, but I keep thinking, “I’ve GOT to quote this . . . ” So this was meant to be a paragraph or two of meditation on Baldwin. Glad you felt it achieved its purpose, even if I wish I could write short!

  • owen1936 says:

    Wonderful, Richard. So much to enjoy–the range of your sources, the photos, film clip, and your thoughts work together profoundly and beautifully.

  • Thomas Larson says:

    Richard, it’s so good to hear you write about Baldwin in any context. I love the idea of “style as failure.” Flip it over for “style as success,” which you also allude to. If a writer somehow manages to get the idea into an aesthetically pleasing sentence, balancing sense and sound to the degree that we register its thought and emotion simultaneously and without drawing too much attention to itself, then he’s succeeded. The failure part comes when the thought escapes the sonority of the sentence or the sound is too mellifluous and overpowers the thought, which is the source of awkwardness–as if a clunky sentence is the stepchild of clunky thought.

    It is never easy to get this just right, though public speakers of great training and musical sensibility can do this, almost with improvisation and daring. It’s why, I suspect, you include videos of JB speaking, seemingly, off the cuff.

    One either has a cadential voice or not or one learns how to revise toward such a voice. But it seems to me no great idea can be written, that is, expressed and heeded, unless it has the rhythmic cadences of speech. Of course, JB had this ability in abundance.


    • Great phrase, Tom: “The failure part comes when the thought escapes the sonority of the sentence or the sound is too mellifluous”—Baldwin was indeed mellifluous in the best sense: flowing and pleasing to the ear. As well, I like your notion of cadence. He was a remarkable speaker, seemingly off the cuff but I suspect, as well, that it was because he had first expressed himself on the page. He made his ideas elegant and real there, first, and then drew on that work; it was available to him. Buckley was the exact opposite in the Cambridge face-off, whether it was because he hadn’t written his retrograde defense, lacked true eloquence, or because his effort was simply lesser, whether he’d written it or not.

  • Sorry for the late response to this posting, but I wanted to view the Baldwin-Buckley debate from beginning to end before making a comment. I remember hearing about this debate when I was in graduate school, but never saw it until now. The first thing that struck me was that both men expanded their arguments beyond the parameters of the proposition. Baldwin’s indictment was more comprehensive than just the high cost of the American Dream to black Americans. It was an indictment of a “Western system of reality” that denied the humanity of people of color and sought to exert absolute power over them. Baldwin’s eloquence was impressive, but he carried the debate on the credibility he had as a black man who had personal experience of the subjugation that Buckley could only address in abstract — and often vague — terminology. For his part, Buckley seemed less interested in debating the proposition than in taking aim at points raised in Baldwin’s writings. That said, Buckley did make a valid point about white America needing some kind of “instructions” on how to remedy the injustices suffered by black Americans. As far as I can tell, those instructions are still needed.

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