Wednesday, February 10, 2021

the last book I ever read (Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, excerpt ten)

from Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.:

Cleaver was in prison for rape and assault and not yet a Panther when on June 1, 1966, Ramparts, a New Left, Catholic political magazine, published his essay “Notes on a Native Son,” later included in his book Soul on Ice. In that essay, he infamously wrote, “There is in James Baldwin the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself, and the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in any black American writer of note in our time.”

I have always wondered why the editors at Ramparts published Cleaver’s essay. Despite moments of insight, for the most part he moves about Baldwin’s writings like a rabid animal in closed quarters. Were the journal’s editors fascinated by the fact that Cleaver wrote quality prose from behind bars? Or was it a staging of sorts of the latest “battle royal,” that moment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where blindfolded black boys brutally fought over pennies on an electrified floor for the entertainment of rich southern white men—only, in this case, for radical white revolutionaries in a glossy magazine? Indeed, Baldwin had himself participated in 1949 in a similar battle with Richard Wright, the author of the novel Native Son. And just as Cleaver now called out Baldwin for “hatred of the blacks,” nearly two decades earlier Baldwin had accused Wright of the same thing, connecting Native Son with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and accusing Wright of failing to represent fully the complexity of black life. Ironically, Cleaver would hold Baldwin to account for his criticism of Wright.

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