THE PRICE OF THE TICKET
Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985
Perhaps only a young black writer as prickly as the early Baldwin himself should review this, though at first it seems unreviewable by a black of any age, since Baldwin begins by rejecting blackness or negritude itself as a self-defeating, even strangling self-categorization. His strategy from the start has been to paint himself ever more tightly into a comer defined by everything he rejects (at one time or another, just about everything). With the sole exception of his 1985 book on the Atlanta child murders, this volume brings together every piece of nonfiction, short and long, that Baldwin wishes to save. It is a stunning achievement, violently personal, gifted, distilled from a lifelong mediation on race, sometimes less intelligent than given to big generalizations and intellectual grandiosity, yet ever a whiplash on the national conscience, if steadily remote in its fury. Baldwin opens with a new essay, "The Price of the Ticket," describing his early days as a reviewer-essayist for highbrow leftist periodicals, then summarizes his feelings about the total racism of current American institutions: "Leaving aside my friends, the people I love, who cannot, usefully, be described as either black or white, they are, like life itself, thank God, many many colors, I do not feel, alas, that my country has any reason for self-congratulation"--a sentence, alas, that is a Baldwinian jumble. His early essays often find him straining for destructive criticism: it is Baldwin, after all, who sees the black in white America and the white in black America so clearly blended that he can tell us there is no white America. One of his best reviews is of Ross Lockridge's celebration of America in the mythic Raintree County. "The book, which had no core to begin with, becomes as amorphous as cotton candy under the drumming flows of words. . .words. . .Mr. Lockridge uses. . .as a kind of shimmering web, hiding everything with an insistent radiance and proving that, after all, everything is, or is going to be, all right. . Raintree County, according to its author, cannot be found on any map: and it is always summer there. He might also have added that no one lives there anymore." Here also are Baldwin's searing introduction of white America to Malcolm X and Harlem's black Muslims (The Fire Next Time) in which he finds black racism as misguided as the white devils it attacks; his shadowboxing with Norman Mailer; his attack on the protest novel, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Native Son (which angered his friend Richard Wright) and marvelous deflation of, among others, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and The Birth of a Nation for misrepresenting the black experience. Most moving of all is his autobiographical tour of his blackness No Name on the Street: "To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have never found themselves part of a civilization they could in no wise honorably defend--which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn--and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new. . .