Sunday, January 24, 2016

Urchins keeping a secret; black boys in league against the world: a figure in James Baldwin

The other day I read this in James Baldwin's essay on Ingmar Bergman, "The Northern Protestant":
He had made it sound as though we were two urchins playing a deadly and delightful game which must be kept a secret from our elders.
I noted this in itself but also because it reminds me of Tomas Transtrømer's wonderful idea of poetry as "inspired notes" passed back and forth as secrets from "official life". I was also intrigued by the coincidence that two great artists from Scandinivia had made the same point (or, to be precise, in Bergman's case, had made that impression on Baldwin).

Today, reading further in Baldwin's essays, I came across Baldwin's description of his first meeting with Richard Wright in "Alas, Poor Richard", his three-part memoir-essay after Wright's death:
He had a trick, when he greeted me, of saying, "Hey, boy!" with a kind of pleased, surprised expression on his face. It was very friendly, and it was also, faintly, mockingly conspiratorial – as though we were two black boys, in league against the world, and had just managed to spirit away several loads of watermelon.
Now I'm struck by this as a figure in Baldwin's work: the way he sees – even wants to see – the mentor (Wright) and the filmmaker (Bergman) as his co-conspirators in the secret world of art.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

There's another version of this figure in the third part of Baldwin's essay on Wright:

"One ‘exceptional’ Negro watches another ‘exceptional’ Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been. Alliances, in the great cocktail party of the white man’s world, are formed, almost purely, on this basis, for of both of you can laugh, you have a lot to laugh about. On the other hand, if only one of you can laugh, one of you, inevitably, is laughing at the other."

I just love the bit of this phrase: "the great cocktail party of the white man's world".