James Baldwin

Race relations, for lack of a better term, are much on my mind as I work on a novel about a lynching in my hometown of Greenville, S.C. in 1947.  I have also been irked recently by the movie “The Help” (I felt the same way about the book).  Irked, because racism in the Jim Crow South was so real, true, and terrible that I hate to see it portrayed in ways that seem to me crude, simplistic and in many ways phony. The white women are such one-dimensional caricatures that “The Help” mistakenly suggests that all white women who employed maids were simply awful people, when in fact many of them were nice enough. By portraying them as despicable, “The Help” skews the fact that racism was so pervasive and accepted that even “nice” people operated within it as if it were a given, like God and country.  You didn’t have to be a Hilly and insist on outside bathrooms.  Without, I hope, sounding like an apologist for racism, the white women I knew who had maids, including my mother, were not crude or cruel. There is no denying they benefited from the racist system, took advantage of it, and the racism they were part of was wrong and damaging in the extreme.  But the relationships I experienced between maids and white women were not the rigid, hateful, punishing ones portrayed in the movie.  It was more insidious, in a way, BECAUSE the white people weren’t simplistic villains.  So while the book/movie is correct in capturing the racism that maids endured, it does so in a way that lacks complexity and nuance to me. It creates white villains, with the exception of the young, white liberal Skeeter with whom the audience can identify  and feel superior to the AWFUL white women who treated their maids so horrendously. 

 The portrayal of the Black women I found more true to life (with Viola Davis a magnificent actress), but I don’t feel qualified to speak for how Blacks feel about those characters and depictions.  I have my doubts that maids would have been willing to tell their stories to a Skeeter.  That seems to me pure fantasy, as did a number of other plot turns—which I object to because racism was so real why create a story that falsifies in some important ways the actual reality?  While it is conceivable I suppose that a maid would put shit in a pie and serve it to a hated white employer, there is no way that that maid would TELL the woman she had eaten shit!  I mean, come on, you can’t have it both ways: Jim Crow South with the threat of violence keeping Blacks in their place…and a Black woman telling a white woman she’s just eaten her shit!  Never happen.

But maybe the broad, simplified strokes of the book/movie are what have made it so popular.  People get to have an entertaining experience in which they feel they’re learning something (and are, in a way) and get to have a satisfying emotional experience that is essentially a fairy tale.  Lots of people love it and have maybe seen the truth of racism in a way they haven’t experienced before. So that is worth something, I suppose.

Musing over all this, I realize that I don’t consider The Help actual literature, and maybe that’s why I take such issue with it. It’s pop culture.  So maybe I should accept it as that.  I posted about another novel (on June 3rd, 2011) called Four Spirits which I’m recommending to people, real literature which has a much deeper, truer depiction of the racist South and the Civil Rights movement. The characters are fully developed, complicated and complex, and even the villains are shaded to some extent.  Even though it is historical fiction, it does not falsify what could have happened.  It does what real literature does, which is feed our souls, not just offer a popcorn version of the truth. 

Then I remembered a short story by James Baldwin that I hadn’t read in years and which I suddenly had to reread as an antidote to The Help: “Come out the Wilderness.”  It’s such a powerful and moving story that captures so much complexity about so many human emotions and interactions that it makes my eyes water. You could say it’s about “race relations” but really, that reduces it in the way The Help reduces race relations, when in fact “Wilderness” is tremendously about a human being in pain, specifically a young black woman, Ruth,   who is in love with a white painter who is preparing to leave her, and whom she loves and hates with all the passion of a hopeless love affair, compounded by the racial mix.  Ruth left the South after being falsely accused by her family of sleeping with a boy when she was seventeen, with her brother saying to her, “You dirty…you dirty..you black and dirty—.”  She escapes via an older man to Manhattan, leaving behind her place and people to try to forge a better life than what was available back home.  Back home, her mother is a maid, her father works on the oyster boats, and “after a lifetime of labor, should they drop dead tomorrow, there would not be a penny for their burial clothes.”  It’s her mother’s song which gives title to the story: “And she remembered her mother, half-humming, half-singing, with a steady, tense beat that would have made any blues singer sit up and listen (though she thought it best not to say this to her mother):

Come out the wilderness,
Come out the wilderness.
How did you feel when you come out the wilderness,
Leaning on the Lord?”

Ruth is caught by an intense, physical relationship with a man about to leave her, after what has been the happiness of love.  “She wondered where it had all gone to – the ease, the pleasure they had had together once.  At one time their evenings together, sitting around the house, drinking beer or reading or simply laughing and talking, had been the best part of all their days.  Paul, reading, or walking about with a can of beer in his hand, talking, gesturing, scratching his chest; Paul, stretched out on the sofa, staring at the ceiling; Paul, cheerful, with that lowdown, cavernous chuckle and that foolish grin, Paul grim, with his mouth turned down and his eyes burning; Paul doing anything whatever, Paul with his eyelids sealed in sleep, drooling and snoring, Paul lighting her cigarette, touching her elbow, talking, talking, talking, in his million ways, to her, had been the light that lighted up her world.  Now it was all gone, it would never come again, and that face which was like the heavens was darkening against her.”  Anyone who has loved and lost recognizes these heartbreaking feelings! 

She wonders if he is leaving her “because of her color, because she was a colored girl.  Then her past and her present threatened to engulf her.  She knew she was being unfair; she could not help it; she thought of psychiatry; she saw herself transformed, at peace with the world, herself, her color, with the male of indeterminate color she would have found.  Always, this journey round her skull ended with tears, resolutions, prayers, with Paul’s face, which then had the power to reconcile her even to the lowest circle of hell.” 

Ruth works as a secretary in an insurance firm, supporting Paul while he paints and drinks.  Mr. Davis, her supervisor, is moving up in the company and asks her if she will be his secretary now that he’s been promoted.  A Black man from the South, he’s familiar to her in a painful way, perhaps because he offers an alternative to Paul.  They go out for dinner, getting to know one another and connecting in ways that unnerve her. “But she was beginning, with every step they took, to be a little afraid of him.  She was responding to him with parts of herself that had been buried so long she had forgotten they existed.  In his office that morning, when he shook her hand, she had suddenly felt a warmth of affection, of nostalgia, of gratitude even…he had somehow made her feel safe.  It was his friendliness that was so unsettling.  She had grown used to unfriendly people…Sooner or later he would learn about Paul: He would look at her differently then.  It would not be—so much—because of Paul as a man, perhaps not even Paul as a white man. But it would make him bitter, it would make her ashamed, for him to see how she was letting herself be wasted—for Paul, who did not love her.”  But it is Paul she wants, perhaps because of and in spite of his being white. 

When Paul doesn’t call, she goes to a bar to drink, where she wishes she had never met Paul, wishing that he or she or both of them were dead.  “Perhaps in those moments when she had believed herself willing to lay down her life for him she had only been presenting herself with a metaphor for her peace, his death; death, which would be an inadequate revenge for the color of his skin, for his failure, by not loving her, to release her from the prison of her own.”  

In the bar she sees a lean, pale boy who reminds her of another boy she had known briefly a few years before, another white lover but one whom she was not sorry to see go.  As she observes the young man now, whom she recognizes as an actor, something about him reminds her not only of that earlier boy, but also of Paul:

 “…of the vanished boy, of others, of others she had seen and never touched, of an army of boys—boys forever!—an army she feared and hated and loved.  In that  gesture, that look upward, with the light so briefly on his face, she saw the bones that held his face together and the sorrow beginning to corrode his brow, the blood beating like butterfly wings against the cage of his heavy neck. But there was no name for something blind, cruel, lustful, lost, intolerably vulnerable in his eyes and mouth.  She knew that in spite of everything, his color, his power, or his coming fame, he was lost.  He did not know what had happened to his life. And never would.  That was the pain she had seen on the face of that boy long ago, and it was this that had driven Paul into her arms, and now away.  The sons of the masters were roaming the world, looking for arms to hold them. And the arms that might have held them—could not forgive.”

It is a remarkable passage.  In its amazing rhetoric, it attempts…and I think succeeds…in capturing a complex truth that feels as if it comes out of some deep personal experience of Baldwin’s, perhaps based on white lovers he’d had and lost.  It’s interesting that the final climactic image shifts to the pain of white men, when it has been Ruth’s story.  But it is Ruth who recognizes what the white men who have loved and left her cannot recognize or understand in themselves: their own loss and pain derives from their color and power.  Maybe it is only someone who has felt all the pain that Ruth (and perhaps Baldwin) has who is able to see that “the sons of the masters” are just as lost as she is.  It is this kind of depth that we turn to literature for.    

After her epiphany about the lost boys, a sob escapes from Ruth, and she hurries out into the dark and rain glittered streets. “It fell against her face and mingled with her tears and she walked briskly though the crowds to hide from them and from herself the fact that she did not know where she was going.”  She can’t “come out the wilderness” but is condemned to wander in it lost and alone.