Who Can Afford to Improvise?: Black Music and James Baldwin’s Political Aesthetic by Ed Pavlic (EXCERPT)

guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen

            ‘. . .where only the truth can live’: James Baldwin’s Poetics of the Heart (1951-55)    

           [The following is a very brief piece of a book that traces the place of black music, and lyrics, and the lyric, in James Baldwin’s career as a writer and performer. That book, “Who Can Afford to Improvise?: Black Music and James Baldwin’s Political Aesthetic,” queries the depth and scope of what music meant to Baldwin (after living with him for a while in 1963, his mother said she thought he ate music instead of food) and what that might mean to us. Hopefully, it’ll be forthcoming in 2015.]


           Amid the poverty and suffering in and around his Harlem childhood in the 1930s, James Baldwin sensed he’d grown up amidst the performance rhythms in a cultural tradition that kept people from becoming dominated by their circumstances by enabling a nuanced and vital traffic between interior and social worlds. That tradition enacted a level of experience at the border of the secret and the unconscious. For him, it took its most profound and complex form in black music. In the 1951 essay “Many Thousands Gone,” (written for Partisan Review and collected in Notes of a Native Son, 1955), Baldwin wrote: “It is only in music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story” (CE 19). An organizing drive of Baldwin’s career as a writer was to translate the story unheard in the music into what he called “the disastrously explicit medium of [printed] language” (CE 8). He mobilized its malleable message into a series of confrontations with what he called the American “state of mind.” In a 1953 interview for The New York Herald Tribune, Baldwin, riffing on himself, admitted that he had “always wondered why there has never, or almost never, appeared in American fiction any of the joy of Louis Armstrong or the really bottomless, ironic and mocking sadness of Billie Holiday” (3). 

           In each era, Baldwin’s musical mission would coexist with an irresolvable, dynamic structure at the core of his approach. The most resonant instance of the first dynamic paradigm in his early career appears at the close of his essay “Me and My House. . .” (1955), published in Harper’s (reprinted as the title essay in Notes of a Native Son that same year). Abstracting his notion of amputation and gangrene discussed above, he wrote:     

                It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which
                seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance of life as it
                is, and men as they are: in light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is
                commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second
                idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these
                injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength (Harper’s 61).

The problem, here, was that common American ideas of “life as it is, and men as they are” were drenched in layers of naturalized (racial, class-based, sexual, and gendered) injustice. Over decades, Baldwin searched for the basic facts of life to accept and then focused on the next layer of injustice to “fight with all one’s strength.” In 1955, he wasn’t buying any available version of which was which and for whom. Instead, he sought useful extremities (geographic, social, psychological) from which he could gain critical vantage and begin to figure out what to accept and what to struggle against, first. The first extremity was a faculty of discernment, what he came to call “pride,” located deep within the person. 

           In Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), Baldwin’s first novel, Elizabeth, who had borne a son without being married, struggled to defend her sense of self against a world which considered her a fallen woman, her son a bastard, her life a scandal. Resisting the false-names offered by history and culture and refusing to repent, she thought about the father of her child: “Not even tonight, in the heart’s nearly impenetrable secret place, where the truth is hidden and where only the truth can live, could she wish that she had not known him. . . that, being forced to choose between Richard and God, she could only, even with weeping, have turned away from God” (ENS 152). In contrast to the existence of her feelings—and the life of her “illegitimate” son—in the world as it was and what it all meant in the eyes of men as they were, she felt what was in “the heart’s nearly impenetrable secret place, where only the truth could live.” While subtle, a lot depends upon Baldwin’s use, here, of the indefinite article, “the,” instead of the personal pronoun, her. In “Me and My House. . .”, he recurred to that resource as the starting place for questioning the relationship between injustice and the world as it was: “This fight begins, however, in the heart, and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair” (64). The narrative of the eldest son taking charge upon the death of the father was itself an insidious part of the injustice of the world because of “life as it is” (and was) as well as “men as they” were (and “are”). Baldwin’s first resource in his development related directly to a woman’s (Elizabeth Grimes and, by extension, his own mother’s) weapon in this reckoning. His note to the readers of Harper’s about keeping his heart “free of hatred and despair” was one, rather comforting, way to put it. But Baldwin was also keeping track of his pride’s fierce quest to disturb the world as it was en route to changing things he’d been told—often without being told—to accept. He could feel a conflict on the way in which much of the world as it was would be overthrown. 

           Baldwin thought that a deeply subversive force accrued to those who could connect to the “nearly impenetrable, secret” poetics of the heart. In the closing scene of the novel, on the dusty floor at the feet of the enraptured saints of his church, John found: “Of tears there was, yes, a very fountain—springing from a depth never sounded before, from depths John had not known were in him” (ENS 198). It was a revelation of a private—but no ways neatly individual—resource, a source of potential, but as yet inarticulate, power: “The night had given him no language, no second sight, no power to see into the heart of any other” (200). He knew, however, where it came from: “He knew only—and now looking at his mother . . .that the heart was a fearful place” (200). John encountered a distant, unfocused, and personal resource of his mother’s in himself. And it was frightening. But, he sensed that it was also the root of an insightful and disruptive—possibly subversive—force. He’d felt its power—if he didn’t yet understand the profound costs—as his mother and his aunt Florence stood between him and his father’s judgment. As he emerged from the church back into the street, his vision now connected to the point of view where only the truth could live, John carried the fearful power to loose the world as it was from its illusions of stability: “That heart, that breath, without which was not anything made which was made.” He then saw the world from the nearly impenetrable point of view: “Tears came to his eyes again, making the avenue shiver, causing the houses to shake” (211). John’s creator had promised the readers of Harper’s that he’d keep his “heart free of hatred and despair” (64). He meant it. But, he also knew that he carried in his heart the spark, and in his mind a radical, lyrical capacity, determined to cast visions capable of destabilizing the world as it said it was and disturbing men as they thought they were. In order to live, even as yet with “no language, no second sight, no power,” he sensed this is what he’d have to do. 

           Baldwin’s sense of this tradition of engaged pride lodged deep in the heart linked him directly with his family, especially his mother, and with a tradition of double-edged articulation in black music. He wrote perceptively if often obliquely about Billie Holiday many times in novels, in essays such as “On Catfish Row” (1959) and “The Uses of the Blues” (1964) as well as in The Devil Finds Work (1976). In one of her best self-authored songs, “Billie’s Blues,” most of all in the version she recorded at Carnegie Hall in January 1944, Holiday sang: “I ain’t good looking and my hair ain’t curled.” After drummer Sid Catlett audibly disagreed and Holiday repeated the line, she concluded the verse, “But, my Mama she give me something that’ll carry me through this world.” As did Catlett on stage in 1944, saying “it’s true, it’s true,” Baldwin, as well as his mirror-image protagonist in Go Tell It On the Mountain, John Grimes, would have had to nod their heads.

           In Go Tell It On the Mountain, Baldwin only hinted at the way such prideful subjects, in the very shadow of their vaunted autonomy, needed each other nonetheless. When Elizabeth sought out Florence, the scene figured what “she then so incoherently felt: how much she needed another human being, somewhere, who knew the truth about her” (ENS 172). Baldwin’s earliest work betrays that need as well. Pride needed to be heard, and could only be heard if it avoided its own tendencies toward vanity, toward disguise. No one did that alone. Autonomy could not, Baldwin knew, exist in isolation.

           During his career, Baldwin’s lyrical prose would help make avenues all over the world shake and shiver, his is a incomparable chart of emerging and committed consciousness, black consciousness and / as human consciousness, in the decades following WWII. To the dismay of many, then, and to the delight and of many many more since, his work creates a fantastical Virgil capable of guiding readers and listeners through labyrinths in our interior and exterior worlds. Arguably, no writer operates with the versatile and hard-won complexity of Baldwin who was at his best where the private and political worlds confessed their inexorable connections and conundrums. Echoing in near-verbatim terms a fearful declaration he’d made over a love affair with a Harlem racketeer as a teenager in Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) blocks from his home in Harlem, his little piece focused on Elizabeth in Go Tell It On the Mountain offers just a brief glimpse at where that fierce point-of-view came from in Baldwin’s earliest fiction. 

           Through the political fires of the 60s, the volatile kaleidoscope of the 70s and furious retrenchments of the 1980s, and no matter one’s social position, Baldwin thought it all began with recognitions deep in the human interior. Twenty-three years after Go Tell It On the Mountain was published, in 1976 Baldwin’s comments to a group of women prisoners at Riker’s Island State Prison in New York echo John Grimes’s connection to a tradition borne in his mother’s heart:

               We all got here through many dangerous toils and snags. Our fathers had to go
               through death, slaughter, and murder—things we still see around us. But there is more
               than that behind us. If not, we wouldn’t be able to walk a single day or draw a breath.
               I’m only trying to say that one can change any situation, even though it may seem
               impossible. But it must happen inside you first. Only you know what you want. The first
               step is very, very lonely. But later you will find the people you need, who need you,
               who will be supportive. (Conversations 160). 

Three years before that, he concluded his conversation with The Black Scholar saying “The world begins here, entrusted in your head and in your heart, your belly and your balls. If you can trust that, you can change the world, and we have to (Conversations 158).


Baldwin, James. ----. “On an Author.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review 29 (31 May, 1953): 3.

----. Collected Essays. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America. 1998.

----. Early Novels and Stories. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America. 1998.

Conversations with James Baldwin. Eds. Pratt, Stanley L. and Louis Pratt. Jackson: U Mississippi 

P. 1989.


Contributor Notes

Professor of English and Creative Writing, ED PAVLIĆ’S most recent books are Visiting Hours at the Color Line (Milkweed Editions, 2013), But Here Are Small Clear Refractions (Achebe Center, 2009, Kwani?Trust, 2013) and Winners Have Yet to be Announced: A Song for Donny Hathaway (U Georgia P, 2008). Others include Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue (Copper Canyon, 2001), Crossroads Modernism: Descent and Emergence in African American Literary Culture (U Minnesota Press, 2002), and Labors Lost Left Unfinished (UPNE/Sheep Meadow Press, 2006). 'Who Can Afford to Improvise?: Black Music and James Baldwin's Political Aesthetic" is forthcoming in 2015. Ed Pavlić teaches at the University of Georgia and lives with his family in Athens, GA.