Baldwin to Stan Weir

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

James Baldwin

Dear Stan:

I finally got the King letter out, and I wired you to that effect yesterday. I sent my letter special delivery to my sister, for I had left Coretta’s address on my desk in New York. I left New York that abruptly. You must forgive me for my terrible delay, which I can hardly explain — exhaustion hit me like a hammer, and knocked me down I can scarcely put it any other way, for, though I was, as it seemed, somewhat ill-first the stomach, then the eyes — I never really believed that any of it was physical, really. I think I simply panicked, or, in effect, fainted. I’m Puritanical enough to be very ashamed of this, but perhaps I had something to learn.

I know that when I came back East, I immediately spent I don’t know how long now, from early morning until late at night, in the corridors and court rooms of the Tombs, trying to help a friend fight for his life. I lost that battle, at least for the moment, that is, he’s still in jail; and I had to calculate how to begin the battle, which has already taken nearly two years and far more money than I can afford, again. There may be sermons in stones, etc., but there are certainly terrible wit nesses in those halls: by watching the visitors, you know who’s in jail. Enough.

There’s also the Huey Newton business. And I’ve been asked, by the Biafrans, to go to Biafra, to write about it, and somehow define it to the world. This caused, as you can imagine, a very perceptible rise in the level of consternation with which my poor family has had to live, in regard to myself, for so long, and led me into a veritable thicket of unanswerable questions. And I kept thinking of my friend in the Tombs, and of the DA who asked me to persuade him to plead guilty, and then, since he’s already been in prison. In nearly two years — without trial — after a year or so, they’d let him go. Honor, as it were, among thieves.

But Tony had already turned down the bargain, which, in any case, I could never possibly advise him to accept. The offer seemed — it was — so confident and so brazen, and the morality which produced it so pervasive, that every human effort began to seem to me to be unutterably futile and all of my own effort mere doomed pretension: who am I, after all, and who do you think you’re kidding, baby? Those big boys are playing for keeps, and nobody’s life means anything to them, and you can never win.

That was when I left, and why I left so abruptly. Thank God, I’m a writer, for I had to realize, as a writer, that I had reached the most dangerous possible level of demoralization — for, once you can say, why bother? you are free to become wicked. And I’m already wicked and blind enough.

I don’t know, Stan, the older I get, nearly as much about myself or the world as I did when I was young and I don’t know why it isn’t possible to leave things as they are. I hope I’m not complaining, but God knows I never dreamed of finding myself in such a place: and all that strengthens me, finally, is my own arbitrary decision that I don’t after all, really have to know that. I have to trust that.

Of course, what paralyzes one in a crisis is the terrible wedding between one’s private confusions, anguishes, joys — keep the wound open, Kafka warns — and one’s public role: one feels like a drunken surgeon, confronting the most important operation of his life. But if I can’t write, then I can do nothing whatever, and I’m pregnant with a book and I had to come away to listen to it kick in me, and live with that most particular terror and attention, to submit myself, again, to that most grueling of examinations, to commit myself, again, to life. And also to make money to fight those various trials.

I meant to write an open apology to the men, but, in my present state, that strikes me, simply, as being the most insufferable presumption. Please convey to them something of my situation, and my very genuine regret. I also promised you a short statement which you could use publicly, and I now belatedly realize that Coretta’s letter is now Coretta’s property, and you may not be able to quote from that. And I don’t know what to say, I am terribly weary of slogans and battle cries. Public as I am, my commitment becomes, nevertheless, more and more private, more and more a matter of the most precise articulation. So, you must simply let me off that particular hook — you have my name, and you have my word.

Take care, and keep in touch.

–Jimmy B, Arifi Pasa Korusu, Nazli
Ap. 14 (D-1), Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey
(August 7,1969)

January-February 1989, ATC 18

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *