Thursday, October 24, 2013


Mythical, Mystical, Mysterious but definitely a tragic drama


This play is essential to understand James Baldwin. It came out in 1964, four years after Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” and two years after Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation of the same. The book got the Pulitzer Prize and the film got an Oscar. James Baldwin could not ignore it. What’s more he sets in the mouth of Josephine Britten the traditional southern lullaby “Hush, little baby. Don't say a word. Mama's going to buy you a mocking bird” which could not be clearer about his knowledge of those novel and film.

When we know this context we can easily see that this play is the reversal of Harper Lee’s novel. A white man, Lyle Britten (a Good-time Charlie who enjoys partying and pleasure: see page 90, the ironical use of “Charlie” by Richard) is arrested for the murder of Richard Henry, a young Black man just back from New York where he had spent eight tempestuous and tortuous years, and the son of the local Black preacher Meridian Henry. The trial is of course rigged and Lyle Britten is found not guilty by a jury we understand to be all white, a non conviction based on the testimony of his wife who accuses the dead man of having tried to rape her and this verdict comes in spite of the contradictory testimony from Lorenzo, a Black friend of the victim, who rejects the accusation as wrong and in a way impossible since the wife always remained behind her counter. In other words the trial is whitewashing the murderer and legally lynching the victim.

If it were only that this play would be rather banal and it would not reach any depth comparable to Harper Lee’s novel. But there is another dimension that is hard to understand and capture but that creates a disorienting and destabilizing atmosphere in the play. The local rich white man is also the editor and publisher of the local newspaper and he is defending social justice, and this is explained in a few sentences page 54:

“Parnell James:  I’ve talked about social justice. . . It means that if I have a hundred dollars, and I’m black, and you have a hundred dollars, and you’re white, I should be able to get as much value for my hundred dollars – my black hundred dollars – as you get for your white hundred dollars. It also means that I should have an equal opportunity to earn that hundred dollars . . .”

But this Parnell James who pretends to be a lasting friend of both Lyle Britten and Meridian Henry is the one who hammers the last nail into the legal lynching when he answers as follows to the description of the alleged rape attempt:

“The State: Mrs Britten has testified that Richard Henry grabbed her and pulled her to him and tried to kiss her. How can those action be misconstrued?
“Parnell: Those actions are – quite explicit.
“The state: Thank you Mr. James. That is all.
“Judge: The witness may step down.” (page 113-114)

Then we can have Lyle Britten’s testimony, it will change nothing and the case has been heard and the verdict cast in lead: “Not guilty, Your Honor.” (page 116)

In other words the prosecutor is on the side of the accused and the dead man is represented in his absence by a counselor who does not play his role, which should be a strong stance denouncing and even accusing Lyle Britten with the murder, and bringing up the facts that could prove it. The trial was rigged.

But the play even goes a lot farther.

We can believe that the depiction of the white society in this small southern city is slightly superficial by being far and out too homogenized. In 1964 that could not be possible. What’s more the racist arguments are also slightly caricatural. “Lyle: I’ll be damned if I’ll mix with them. . . I don’t want no big buck nigger lying up next to Josephine. . . I’m against it and I’ll do anything I have to do to stop it.” (page 14) “Reverend Phelps: . . . Niggers . . . are harkening to the counsel of these degenerate Communist race-mixers.” (page 49) “Ellis: . . . to be raped by an orang-outang. . . “ (page 50) “Hazel: . . . race mixing. . . Parnell: I’ve never said a word about race-micing. I have talked about social justice. Lillian: That sounds communistic to me. . . George: Well, godammit, white men come before niggers! They got to!” (page 54) “Reverend Phelps: . . . It’s orders from higher up, from the North. . . Ellis: They trying to force us to put niggers on the jury. . . “ (page 56) “Parnell: That was the day I found out how much black people can hate white people.” (page 64) That’s only a selection of such prejudiced opinions on the side of the whites. There is practically no voice going against this consensus and the last quotation by Parnell is tying up all the Blacks in one single parcel: they all hate white people. And I have not counted the number of times the N-word was used: several hundred times at least. The play starts with young Black males in the Black church training at imitating the racism of the whites to learn how to react without running any danger. The N-word is central in this training session.

It is actually Parnell again, the “renegade white man” (page 65) who describes the curse the whites are the victims of when he expands on the hatred he locates in all the Blacks:

“Parnell: [Speaking to himself.] . . . All your life you’ve been made sick, stunned, dizzy, oh, Lord, driven half mad by blackness. . . Out with it, Parnell! The nigger-lover! Black boys and girls! I’ve wanted my hands full of them, wanted to drown them, laughing and dancing and making love – making love – wow! – and be transformed, formed, liberated out of this grey-white envelope. Jesus! I’ve always been afraid. Afraid of what I was in their eyes? They don’t love me, certainly. You don’t love them, either! Sick with a disease only white men catch. Blackness.” (page 106)

There is a curse in this situation. The whites and their desire to possess the Blacks, sexually, to appropriate and integrate in their own flesh these Blacks. It is seen as a catching disease that can only be caught by white males, and that probably is a last stand protection of white women who must have exactly the same desire as white men. This monologue that is a confession in a way is also proof to the influence of the Blacks on Parnell who has here integrated some of their way of speaking, as we are going to show later. “made sick (1), stunned (2), dizzy (3), oh Lord, driven half mad (4) by blackness” contains a triplet of adjectives that is expressing the curse in the southern situation with the pattern of the Christian Trinity because the Christian churches as we are going to see are held responsible for this situation, and this triplet is turned into a quadruplet by the rebounding “driven” adding the fourth adjective “half mad” and that pattern is the symbol of the crucifixion. The curse of the Trinity leads to the curse of the crucifixion. The question is: Is there any hope to get out of this curse?

To answer the question we first have to understand the context in which the Blacks stand, along with the whites, the two being connected as victims and victimizers, and then the way these Blacks see the past, the present and maybe the future.

The play is insistent on the violence the Blacks are the victims of in the hands of the whites. Lyle Britten is the acme of this horror since he had an affair (and that was not the only one) with a young woman, Willa Mae Walker, married to an older man, Old Bill Walker. This older man finally found out and tried to do something about it. Lyle bluntly killed him and Willa Mae disappeared: she supposedly went north. But James Baldwin uses a standard cinematographic ellipse to let us understand she was lynched because of the affair but also because she was pregnant: This

“Pete: I was dreaming (1) – dreaming (2) – dreaming (3). [Note the triplet that opens this story of a lynching.] I was back in that courtyard and Big Jim Byrd’s boys [Note the three Bs turned into the quadruplet of four monosyllable words] was beating us (1) and beating us (2) and beating us (3) – and Big (1) Jim (2) Byrd (3) was laughing. And Anna (1) Mae (2) Taylor (3) was on her knees, she was trying to pray. She say, “Oh Lord (1), Lord (2), Lord (3), come and help us,” and they kept beating on her and beating on her and I saw the blood coming down her neck and they put the prods to her, and, oh, Lorenzo! People was just running around (1), just crying (2) and moaning (3) and you look to the right and you see somebody go down and you look to the left and you see somebody go down and they was kicking that woman, and I say, “That woman’s going to have a baby, don’t you kick that woman!” and they say, “No (1), she ain’t (2) going to have no (3) baby,” and they knocked (1) me down and they got (2) that prod up between my legs and they say (3), “You ain’t (1) going to be having no (2) babies, neither (3), nigger!” [Note how the triplet of Ns in no-neither-nigger expands the triplet of negations into a quadruplet, from a curse to a crucifixion which is the menace of castration in Pete’s case and lynching in Anna Mae Taylor’s case.] And then they put that prod to my head (1) – ah! ah! – to my head (2) Lorenzo (1)! I can’t see right! What have they done to my head (3)? Lorenzo (2)! Lorenzo (3), am I going to die? Lorenzo (4)[Note the four “Lorenzo” and the final crucifixion in this call for help when he says “am I going to die?]” they (1) going to kill us all, ain’t they (2). They (3) mean to kill us all –“

This ellipse gives the meaning of the disappearance of Willa Mae Walker. The two women may be the same, or maybe different, it does not matter: the meaning of an ellipse is just syncretic proximity: the two women disappear, so they must be at least similar if not the same. Lyle then is clearly accused, though not convicted by the white court of law, of killing Richard Henry. This violent reality is systematic in the play:

“Lorenzo: It was your grandson, Mother Henry, that got killed, butchered . . . this damn almighty God who don’t care what happens to nobody, unless, of course, they’re white. . . That white man’s God is white. It’s that damn white God [Note the three “white” attached to “God”] that’s been lynching us and burning us and castrating us and raping our women and robbing us of everything that makes a man a man for all these hundreds of years. [Note the five verbs in –ing, the number of the devil, of Beelzebub, Baphomet, the pentacle of Satan.] Now, why we sitting around here, in His house? If I could get my hands on Him (1), I’d pull Him (2) out of heaven and drag Him (3) [Note how this triplet as been prepared by “His” and thus turned into a quadruplet of pronouns referring to this white God that is the source of the curse and the target of the crucifixion from these young Black people.] through this town at the end of a rope.” (page 4)

And the series goes on:

“Richard: . . . my Mama falling down the steps of the hotel. . . I always believed that some white man pushed her down these steps. . .“ (page 20)
“Mother Henry: Richard, you can’t start walking around believing that all the suffering in the world is caused by white folds!
“Richard: . . . They’re responsible for all the misery I’ve ever seen. . .
“Mother Henry: . . . You’re going to make yourself sick with hatred.
“Richard: . . . I’m going to make myself well with hatred . . .“ (Page 21)

Juanita is even very clear when she says: “It’s rough because you can’t help being scared.” (page 28)  And then it is the episode reported by Mother Henry about Freddy Roberts being woken up by his dog and finding two white men fooling around with his gas pipes under his porch. (page 33) Or Meridian Henry saying: “. . . the man who watches while his people are beaten, chained, starved, clubbed, butchered.” (page 39) Note the diabolical quintuplet of past participles. Or Lorenzo telling how he has just been freed from the chain gang to which he had been sent because he was trespassing in the white waiting room of the bus station (page 91) and we are in 1964 one year after the Washington march with Martin Luther King. And it is Meridian Henry who expresses that total alienation if not spoliation of Black people under white power:

Meridian: . . . I tried to help my son become a man. But manhood is a dangerous pursuit [Note the allusion to the Declaration of Independence and the “pursuit of happiness”.], here. And that pursuit undid him because of your guns (1), your hoses (2), your dogs (3), your judges (4), your law-makers (5), your folly (1), your pride (2), your cruelty (3), your cowardice (4), your money (1), your chain gangs (2), and your churches (3).” (page 103)

Note how the style gives the meaning.

First five repressive means (in the hands of the whites of course) that can only be a pentacle of Satan.

Then four psychological characteristics of the whites, all negative, that represent the crucifixion of the Blacks in the hands of the whites, but also the curse on the whites who can never be really humane, saved, maybe even free from evil.

Finally three tools that give the whites power, and that triplet is essential in the number and in its order. Money first which is material wealth and comfort that only the whites have. Then chain gangs which is the constant pressure set on Black males for any small offense or delinquent act, knowing that such offenses and delinquent acts are decided by the whites, and even at times nothing but the local white sheriff elected by the white electors, though the Black population represents 44% of the total population but most of them, still in 1964, do not vote. It is clear we are not in a period older than this because there is an allusion to WWII and how Meridian Henry served in the armed forces in the war. Note the war is not clearly identified and it could be the Korean War. And finally the churches and that is going to lead us to the vision of the future, to the leadership this Meridian Henry represents as a preacher. But here it is important to understand that the churches are a means of domination in the hands of the whites that enslaves the Blacks to Christian beliefs and Christian rules. But note the total here is twelve and that is the promise of the Gospel, of the twelve disciples whuch transcend the fourfold crucifixion and the threefold curse of the Trinity preached to the Blacks into this twelve-fold promise of the New Testament.

The first element as for the attitude of the Blacks is their general submissive attitude, even of those like Richard who are rebellious. They rebel superficially and not as if they were looking at the world and trying to find solutions to the problems of this world. This submission is expressed, as we have seen by Mother Henry, but it is normal since she is an older woman. It is also expressed by Meridian Henry: “I know that we must bear what we must bear.” (page 99) This submission is questioned by some Blacks but not rejected when Blacktown, a generic character who speaks in the name of the Black community, says: “I wonder how he [Meridian] feels now about all that turn-the-other-cheek jazz. His son sure didn’t go for it.” (page 101)

But this submission is based on a deep Christian belief that God is the only one who can clean up this situation and bring a final judgment on human beings. This is expressed by the three gospel songs or church hymns referred to in the play, and performed on the stage. Three is of course the curse, but this time it is the present curse of a promised future liberation. The first gospel is “I’m gonna tell you about the comin’ of the judgment.”  The burden of the gospel is extremely clear: “Fare ye well” in Mahalia Jackson’s version. The judgment is a promise for the future in its own words:

Well, in that great getting’ up mornin’
Let me tell you ‘bout the comin’ judgment
God goin’ up and speak to Gabriel
Pick up your silver trumpet
Blow your trumpet Gabriel
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Oh, to wake the chirrun sleepin’
They be comin’ from every nation
On their way to the great carnation
Dressed in a robe so white as snow
Singin’, “Oh, I been redeemed”
In that great gettin’ up mornin’

We are referring of course to the trumpet of the apocalypse, hence to John’s Revelation. And it is actually a quotation of this book of the New Testament that is used by Meridian Henry for his oration in honor of his dead son. And the quotation is a shortening of Chapter 3 and in this chapter 3 a shortening of the address to the Laodeceans:

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot.
16 So then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
17 Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing and knowest not that thou art wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, (Revelation 3:15-17, page 77)

It is an angel speaking, a messenger of God, and I understand why James Baldwin cut the next verse that closes this address because it sets to humans the responsibility to adorn themselves in gold bought from the angel and look rich, dress in a virginal raiment to cover their nakedness and use some ointment to cure their blindness: “18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined in the fire, that thou may be made rich; and clothed in white raiment, so that the shame of thy nakedness not be uncovered; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou may see.“ In fact we are speaking of the richness that comes with the gold of God’s grace, the virginal dress that comes from God’s commandments and laws when they are respected and the blindness of those who don’t see God’s truth. This verse cannot be applied to the situation at hand in the play. Si it is vut off. But this quotation refers to the Book of Revelation, hence to Doomsday and the Last Judgment.

The second gospel song is “I Said I Wasn't Gonna Tell Nobody.” In that gospel we find the numerical patterns that we have seen the play uses.

“I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I
Couldn't keep it to myself! (1)
Couldn't keep it to myself! (2)
Couldn't keep it to myself! (3)
I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I
Couldn't keep it to myself, (4)
What the Lord has done for me!”

Here again the first triplet expresses the impulse that cannot be resisted, hence the curse, turned into a quadruplet, a crucifixion that is here an exposition of the speaker who had promised not to speak and yet does speak. He is exposed in the gospel for and by his own exhibiting of what he was supposed to keep secret. And that’s again the judgment of God on Doomsday:

“You oughta been there (1)
You oughta been there (2)
When He saved my soul
Saved my soul
You oughta been there (3)
You oughta been there (4)
When He put my-- Name on the roll.”

And the final salvation of the soul is thus announced. It is individual and not collective. It is only based on what each individual has done and that means the acquisition of the gold of God’s grace, the raiment of God’s law and the vision of God’s truth. This refers to the divine Trinity. This is of course very pessimistic since it is this divine Trinity that brings the curse of the Blacks in America. The Blacks are the victims of the Christian churches. And it leads that saved Christian on the road to what we know is the messianic Jerusalem:

“You know that I
Started walkin' (1)
And I
Started talkin' (2)
Then I
Started singin' (3)
Then I
Started shoutin' (4)”

And that is the real salvation since the crucifixion is transformed into the long walk to the messianic Jerusalem after the Trinity of the curse was turned in the divine Trinity regenerated by the Last Judgment on Doomsday. And the desert has to be crossed to reach the promised Jerusalem.

The third gospel song is “Woke Up This Morning” and it is actually oriented onto the material human future in this world.

I woke up this mornin' with my mind (1)
My mind (2), it was stayed on freedom
I woke up this mornin' with my mind (3)
My mind (4),
it was stayed on freedom

We can see how the four “mind” are embraced by the two “mornin’” and the two “freedom”, hence by this second quadruplet and for once we get to eight, which is the symbol of the resurrection and of the Last Judgment, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, often represented as an omega in Romanesque art, a horizontal eight. This is amazing because James Baldwin uses the oration of predication to convey his meaning. There is some hope then, but it is the hope of a long walk to the messianic Jerusalem that can only be reached after the Second Coming. It is a salvation in our next life in the next world.

And here is that promise:

“Walk, walk, walk, walk [four]
Walk, walk, walk, walk [four] [eight]
(With my mind on freedom)

Walk, walk, walk, walk [four]
Walk, walk, walk, walk [four] [eight]
(With my mind, my mind on freedom)

I met my brother on the street
(Walk, walk, walk, walk) [four]
He had a smile on his face
(Walk, walk) [two] [six, Solomon’s number and wisdom]
With his mind on freedom
(Walk, walk)” [four] [eight]

And we could study the balancing tempo and rhythm of this gospel to show how it all culminates in eight, in a way or another.

Can we say the vision is optimistic? I don’t think so, except in Christian terms but in 1963 the Baptist Preacher Martin Luther King had demonstrated that walking did not have to be after the Second Coming but here on this earth in this world. That means James Baldwin, in his own vision, is expressing the total locking up of the Christian Blacks in their Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome that blocks them on the way to “remember, reconcile and recommit” themselves. The Blacks as well as the whites do remember but their past is a curse (it is in a way fetishized), they cannot reconcile because the whites are suffering from the “blackness” disease, just as much as the blacks or suffering from the “whiteness” disease, and thus they cannot recommit themselves to the real Christian project in life of solving with Christian love and human understanding the problems created  by the exploitation of some men by other men due to and based on their differences that ought to be accepted and turned into diversity and tolerance.

This blocking heritage is best expressed at the end of the play by Meridian Henry:

Meridian: You know, for us, it all began with the Bible and the gun. Maybe it will end with the Bible and the gun.
Juanita: What did you do with the gun, Meridian?
Parnell: You have the gun – Richard’s gun?
Meridian: Yes. In the pulpit. Under the Bible. Like the pilgrims of old.” (page 120

And in the background the Blacks led by the young are starting to march to the city hall where they are going to hold a wake for Richard Henry. They are on the move but that comes from the young who doubt the truth and the power of the Christian message, as best expressed by Juanita:

“I don’t want to be God’s mother! He can have His icy, snow-white heaven! If He is somewhere around this fearful planet, if I ever see Him, I will spit in His face! In God’s face. How dare He presume to judge a human soul! A living soul.” (page 94) “. . . Lyle killed him. Lyle killed him! Like they been killing all our men, for years, for generations! Our husbands, our fathers, our brothers, our sons!” (page 99)

Her rejection of God leads her to this total impasse of remembering and only remembering, trapped as she is by the four types of men she states expanded into five by the preceding generic “our men.”

And yet there is maybe some hope, though limited:

Meridian: I do not wish to see Negroes become the equal of their murderers. I wish us to become equal to ourselves? To become a people so free in themselves that they will have no need to – fear – others – and have no need to murder others.” (page 102)

Altogether a good play even if it is anchored in its historical period. The future might be in the Blacks recapturing themselves, but, and that is not said, without locking themselves o, their own recaptured essence that makes them human first of all.


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