Enjoy this moving and eloquent series entry from Chitown Kev. Ed.
The situation, first.
My thoughts reflected through a 25-year old prism.
19 years old. Black. Gay (whatever that meant at the time.). Living in my aunt’s home in northeast Detroit; I had recently returned from New York City. I’d decided to go to New York City, in small part., because of a horrible fall semester at an HBCU. I lived with the belief that my Mom’s proclamation that, “You have ruined your life” was prophetic. Jobless. Alone. Scared. Trapped. in so many ways.
One thing I love about my family was (and is) that reading material is never more than an arm’s length away. I can’t recall ever living more than a few blocks from a library. Month-old newspaper archives in the bathroom. Remainders from the Crown Books that Granddad brought home from Somerset Mall in Troy, where he worked as a janitor. Mom’s Alfred Hitchcock magazines (which tagged her oldest son with a taste for the macabre that survives to this day). My stepdad’s copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which he kept on the TV stand and which he always recommended. In my cousin’s closet, there were comic books; new, old, and classic.
To this day, I can’t recall how I came across a copy of James Baldwin’s 1962 novel, Another County. I may have borrowed it from the library. Perhaps I had ransacked one of a seemingly infinite number of mini-libraries from my brother or one of my cousins or one of my uncles or a friend of the family’s (now that I think about it, even the friends of the family were, more often than not, voracious readers). Maybe I found it on the street…who knows? I do remember that when I opened the book and read the first paragraph, I was all in:
“He was facing Seventh Avenue, at Times Square. It was just past midnight and he had been sitting in the movies, in the top row of the balcony, since two o’clock in the afternoon. Twice he had been awakened by the violent accents of the Italian film, once the usher had awakened him, and twice he had been awakened by caterpillar fingers between his thighs. He was so tired, he had fallen so low, that he scarcely had the energy to be angry; nothing of his belonged to him anymore-you took the best so why not take the rest?-but he had growled in his sleep and bared the white teeth in his dark face and crossed his legs. Then the balcony was nearly empty, the Italian film was approaching a climax; he stumbled down the endless stairs into the street. He was hungry, his mouth felt filthy. He realized too late, as he passed through the doors, that he wanted to urinate. And he was broke. And he had nowhere to go.”
I knew these particular streets to be pretty much as is described. I knew that movie theater—or one like it, at least; Times Square had dozens of movie theaters that fit the description. I had more than a passing acquaintance with the caterpillar fingers between the thighs; both from Times Square and the movie theatres in the Village (and even the passing acquaintance of some queen in a Barnes & Noble in lower Manhattan who sneered at me as I walked to the second floor and mumbled, “queen, stop cruising the bookstore.”). I knew what it was like to be young and hungry and broke; to be asked to leave establishments because I had overstayed my welcome or when I was caught stealing.
I couldn’t identify with many of the opening events of the novel. For example, I could not entirely identify with Rufus Scott as he remembered his tragic relationship with Leona which resulted in her commitment to an insane asylum. I couldn’t understand or empathize with his domestic violence. And while I had certainly seen some low moments in all of my nineteen years of living, I realized that I wasn’t suicidal at all; I mean, it was bad but it wasn’t that bad. I had plenty to live for, even if I didn’t know the specifics. What did make deep impression on me, though, was that all of the characters (Rufus, Leona, Ida, Vivaldo, Cass, Eric) seemed to me adults having adult conversations about their lives, their loves, and their innermost thoughts and emotions; things that I wouldn’t have dared to say to anyone or even have acknowledged that I thought. And suddenly, I wanted to be an adult for the first time (as opposed to simply being “grown”).
To that point, the topic of “race” seemed to be a deterministic barrier which ruled the world and everything that I saw, felt, and heard (I was still figuring “the gay thing” out). And it made me very angry. I was as angry at black folks as I was at white folks (if not more so). At least white folks had long been telling me that I had the ability and the “smarts” to overcome the barrier. To that point, black folks seemed not only to not believe that the barrier could not be overcome (which was understandable, at least) but that life behind The Veil
Another Country presented me with an alternative vision. It seemed possible, at least to Baldwin that if people— adults — simply talk with one another as opposed to about one another or at one another then the racial barrier (or any other barrier, for that matter) could be overcome. To be sure, those barriers could only come down brick by inexorable brick. And there would be a price to pay but Baldwin warned me of that:
“...And something in him was breaking; he was, briefly and horribly, in a region where there were no definitions of any kind, neither of color, nor of male or female. There was only the leap and the rending and the terror and the surrender. And the terror; which all seemed to begin and end and begin again—forever—in a cavern behind the eye.”
But the price was well worth paying; it seemed then and seems now.
In some ways, my fondness for Another Country has diminished in the 25 years since I first read the novel. In terms of technique, Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room are better written novels. Of course, Baldwin gained a reputation as perhaps the finest essayist in the English language of the 20th century.
But it was Another Country that gave me my “marching orders,” so to speak. And I can never forget that.