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REVIEWING

Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners

By Ed Pavlic

Published by Fordham University Press

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

“When it came to people, those in his work, and in his life,

he decided: ‘One tries to treat them as the miracles they

are, while trying to protect oneself from the disasters

they’ve become.”

Although this can often be a difficult book for those who do not have a solid, intellectual grounding in novelist/essayist James Baldwin’s literary works, it is, nevertheless, an excellent introduction for those who may have heard of him or have only read an essay or two.

Author Ed Pavlic, in Who Can Afford to Improvise? In this amazing, thorough meditation on his collective works lets Baldwin do most of the talking. The sense of music in Baldwin’s writing, implied in the subtitle, does not fully make the case and takes a decidedly backseat; still, this book is an often-brilliant effort to try to fuse these two different art forms into one.

Instead, however, it is a fascinating intellectual biography of the man, based on vast amounts of direct quotes from Baldwin’s many book reviews, novels, essays, open letters, plays and decades of being interviewed.

***

James Baldwin, growing up poor in black Harlem, never stepped foot in a college. He started his career with only a lowly diploma from Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in the late ‘40s. His first efforts were book reviews for an expressive number of New York City literary and left wing political magazines. There, his talent as a masterful prose stylist with a deadly, wicked wit quickly became apparent.

Pavlic gives us this from a 1948 review in the New Leader of the novel, The Moth, by James M. Cain: “The only thing wrong with (Cain’s characters) was the fact that they were still reeling from the discovery that they were in possession of visible and functioning sexual organs. It was the impact of this discovery that so hopelessly and murderously disoriented them.”

By the time, we get to 1963, after his extraordinary essay, The Fire Next Time, was published the year before in The New Yorker, James Baldwin was arguably the most celebrated writer in America, even making the cover of Time magazine.

Here, author Pavlic use a quote from one of Baldwin’s friends, the composer and jazz pianist Alonzo Levister, “When FIRE came out in The New Yorker I was at Horatio Street. He was an overnight star, and I took him to an upscale store, British American House, for him to buy what I think were the first nice clothes he ever had ‘til that time. That’s how I remember it.”

As the Civil Rights Movement accelerated, and the “Long Hot Summer” of costly black race riots that still haunt black communities today, nationwide; and the political assassinations of the Kennedys, Malcolm X, and Dr. King; and people of every walk of life starting to come out in the streets in cities and college campuses, all across the country, now protesting a deeply unpopular Vietnam war—many in white America turned to novelist/essayist James Baldwin because he seemed to have predicted all of this with insightful precision in the Fire Next Time. It came to life and started scaring them to death.

Also, and just as important for the new national spokesman, now there was the Black Power Movement, which spawned The Black Arts Movement, and the black this, and black that.

What was Baldwin now to do? It was becoming increasingly clear to him that he was being thrown increasingly into a powerful maelstrom. Also, he started to have serious doubts about his prose; as brilliant and beautiful as it was. But, in the end, was it of any use, especially for influencing blacks?

Pavlic writes, “As background for the cover story about Baldwin in Time magazine (May 17, 1963) Washington correspondent Loyle Miller reported back to the bureau from Harlem, “It is as you suspected; in Harlem, Malcolm X is a man of fame, but James Baldwin was right when he wrote ‘Nobody Knows My Name.’”

Baldwin had now confronted what every black creative writer in America has always faced, especially the males: who was he writing to? Is it “My fellow countrymen,” that Baldwin always addressed with his exceptional prose, or, the blacks of the Harlem he once knew? Could they ever recognize his genius and laud him?

One prominent Harlem leader, former Manhattan borough president and former Malcolm X’ lawyer, Perry Sutton, poured cold water on that idea. And, said that there was no way that was ever going to happen:

“Baldwin is interesting reading,” he said to Miller in 1963, “and, we quote him when he serves our purposes. But, he really has no influence. For one thing, he’s difficult reading, so, only the Negro intellectual reads Baldwin, and that severely limits his communication. Remember that Negroes are not influenced by a writer, any writer, because we are not in the main intellectuals. Not enough of us read. The Negroes are influenced by the lecturers, the compelling speakers, the men like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. When you see him (Baldwin) as a lecturer, you see an effeminate, and that ruins him even with those who have read him. He’s a faggot, a fairy. And, we as Negroes have much greater animosity towards lesbians and homosexuals than does the white man, because this is weakness, and there is already too much weakness among Negroes, even among the few that really know about him, and, if he doesn’t impress, he can’t influence.”

Now you can understand why so many black male writers fled America, and why Baldwin died in France. There is a lot to learn in this book.



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