REVIEW: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou

Seven years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death, African author and scholar Alain Mabanckou composed a book-length missive to the great American writer, delivering bitter news from the new millennium: “If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive.”

In the seven years between the first publication of Mabanckou’s Letter To Jimmy and the book’s new translation from the original French, Baldwin’s homeland has made no more progress toward racial understanding — toward becoming an undivided nation — than it did in the twenty years after Baldwin’s death or in the two decades prior, following the period during which Baldwin bore witness as the leading minds of black resistance were successively murdered. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Martin Luther King, Jr. Fred Hampton.

“I couldn’t stay in America,” Baldwin said of his despair in the aftermath to those killings. “I had to leave.”

With the passage of time, hopes once stalled under the gun have stagnated, surfacing time and again in the horrific reek of black men being shot in the street, shot under the color of real or assumed authority, shot dead in the bloody mess of a racist paradigm that makes a brutal lie of the most basic lesson mothers and fathers teach their children: Human life is precious, a sacred gift to be preserved at all costs. This rule can tolerate no exceptions and throughout his life and writing Baldwin summoned all of his profound wit, erudition, and fury to force his countrymen to wake up to the fundamental paradox of American life, the incompatible primordiality that our founding rights and freedoms were built upon a calculated decision to view black lives as a disposable commodity. The profit-point of that commodity may shift from one generation to the next, but as the trade evolves into new and unforeseen industries, the essential disposability remains, passed down in the seamless ease with which white men continue to pull the trigger on black targets.

James Baldwin loved America because he loved himself and he recognized himself as truly American — he could have come from no place else — and Mabanckou’s conclusion is all the more sobering in light of the fact that Baldwin judged his birth country with the searing betrayal that only boils forth when a loved-one disappoints us so thoroughly. Mabanckou centers Baldwin’s work as an act of “understanding the collective through the individual,” and through the personal Baldwin persistently challenged the national conscience, whether expanding from the tenant-landlord disputes of his own upbringing in order to implicate taxi-drivers, teachers, social workers, cops, Con Ed, the army, Albany, Wall Street, Washington, and an entire exploitative system in “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” or addressing a grim and compassionate correspondence to his own nephew on the 100th anniversary of The Emancipation, writing in The Fire Next Time:

“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

***

Unexpected connections are a generative source of literature and Mabanckou’s Letter To Jimmy is sparked by the bond between seekers who’ve traveled common paths but never met: where Baldwin left his home in New York and found his authorial voice as an ex-pat in Paris, the Congo-Brazzaville-born Mabanckou left his home continent for France before arriving in Southern California. While earning numerous French literary prizes for bawdy novels equally-inspired by the oral tradition and Céline, Mabanckou has also spent the better part of a decade teaching at UCLA, and this role as an educator informs the tone of Letter To Jimmy.

Though Baldwin’s legacy has undergone a recent revival, in the early aughts his writing was in danger of slipping from view and Letter To Jimmy unfolds less as a correspondence between literary lions and more as an introduction to Jimmy. Mabanckou devotes the opening third of the short text to a linear chronology of Baldwin’s childhood, an upbringing in Harlem marked by the cold preacher’s gaze of his adopted father and Baldwin’s own youthful dalliance with the pulpit. Depending on the reader’s angle of entry, this biographical material will provide either a clear-eyed view of crucial backstory, or — for those who’ve read Go Tell It On The Mountain and Baldwin’s autobiographical non-fiction — a passage over well-trod ground.

While narrating the circumstances of Baldwin’s life back to him, Mabanckou maintains the direct address of the epistolary form. Though not a failure of Sara Medi Ansari’s translation, in this mode of address the English language fails Mabanckou: the affectionate rise of the French tu es falls flat in the declarative second-person you are, while the unchanging state of English possessives turns the ta, tes, and ton in a graceful sentence like “Elle m’apparaît ajourd’hui comme le prolongement de tes personnages qui ont ta voix, tes gestes, ton rire, ta colère, ton exaspération” into a rigid repetition of your, your, your, your, your, your.

Translation aside, correspondence is, at heart, an act of give-and-take and throughout the book there is room for far more “I” from Mabanckou. Deferring to the greater reputation of his counterpart — and an aim to educate rather than disclose — Mabanckou quotes extensively from both Baldwin and his biographers while also engaging influential post-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi. This august company may not be the place for the tipsy digressions and reeling gleeful profanity of Mabanckou’s fiction, but it is still notable how little of himself the author reveals over the course of his “letter,” countering both his choice of form and his own reading of Baldwin, through which the collective can be powerfully addressed via the personal.

***

If I were to write my own letter to Jimmy it would begin with an apology; not on behalf of my race — for I’m certain Baldwin would’ve raised an eye and scoffed at my lack of authority to make such an offer — but rather for my initial failure to read him on the pure terms to which he aspired: those of “an honest man and a good writer.”

Growing up, raised in the damp whitescapes of Oregon, I found myself drawn to the hardened edges of punk, noir, and the steelier strains of black protest. Breathlessly reading Soul On Ice and Stokely Carmichael, bumping Public Enemy and the X-Clan; when Ice Cube gave up Olde English 40’s and began endorsing St. Ides, I too switched my preferred brand of malt liquor.

Yes, let’s pause a moment and allow that image to sink in.

Baldwin would label this liberal phenomena “a bizarre species of guilty eroticism,” though in my teenage case the erotics were seeded less in guilt than in desire, consuming black rage to compensate for the many lacks of adolescence: worldliness, physical maturity, purpose, depth, and so on. Grounded in the mythos of the Black Panthers, I ranged back to The Black Jacobins and then dove deep into Harold Cruse’s seminal 1967 text, The Crisis Of The Negro Intellectual.

Exhibit A of that “crisis”: Baldwin, James.

Damn but Cruse laid into Jimmy. For Baldwin’s crime of failing to endorse a political-economic model of black nationalism, Cruse blasted the author for being out of touch, deluded, and belonging to a complacent class of “writers (who) have therefore achieved nothing more in print than an agitated beating of their literary breasts. They are lost sheep bleating to the God of Freedom for their deliverance.”

In Letter To Jimmy, as an example of the divisive response to Baldwin’s work among the American black community, Mabanckou references Eldridge Cleaver’s even more caustic view of the author, quoting a passage from Soul On Ice that I’d since forgotten but certainly once internalized: “There is in the work of James Baldwin the most agonizing, complete hatred for Blacks, in particular for himself, and the most shameful, ardent and servile attraction to Whites than can be found in the work of any other black American writer of our day.”

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Only at one time I bought every explosive word — Cleaver and Cruse were selling an agenda and I had endless needs to fill. In my imagined open-mindedness I was in practice subscribing to the flip-side of the very same paradigm that views black defiance as a threatening — and thus justifiably disposable — form of savagery. No less one-dimensional, my idolization and commodification of black protest left me among those who did not know; worse, it could accurately be said that I did not want to know. Cleaver and Cruse labeled Baldwin “soft” — anathema to my narrow uses — and that Tom-smear was sufficient cause for me to bypass Baldwin’s work for the entirety of my teens and twenties.

In my letter to Jimmy I would first apologize for this failure of character; then I would share the tail-chasing irony that if I’d read his work sooner I would’ve been much quicker to understand why I hadn’t read his work sooner; and finally I would offer quiet thanks for The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, No Name In The Street, and an entire body of work that sits not as a hollow artifact of its time but rises flush with brilliant turns of phrase that singe and thrill and challenge, words that remain vital to the living body of world literature.

***

On the heels of The Crisis Of The Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruse spent nearly two decades teaching in the African-American Studies department at the University of Michigan: the book’s 1984 reprint includes a forward by a pair of scholars from the university. Perhaps it’s pure coincidence, perhaps it’s one of those generative sparks of connection, but before heading out west to Los Angeles Alain Mabanckou spent several years as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan — though he never alludes to Cruse in the text, it’s easy to imagine Mabanckou drafting Letter To Jimmy as a gentle corrective to a roomful of misled Ann Arbor undergrads.

It’s certainly no coincidence that Letter To Jimmy comes into its own during a section titled “The Destruction Of Idols.” Freed from secondhand biography and on secure footing with a move to the common ground of France, Mabanckou delves into Baldwin’s rift with fellow ex-pat Richard Wright, an apprentice-mentor feud enflamed by the publication of Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which first appeared in the French literary journal Zero.

Every novel is surrounded by the infinite of what it’s not, and Baldwin’s “gotcha” point in the essay is a dubious one: he criticizes Native Son for Wright’s failure to accurately portray the nuances and cares of black family life, the flip-side of the exact argument made by Baldwin’s detractors. The protest novel lacks the depth of character to endure across generations; the personal novel lacks the political import to matter to a broad contemporary audience: the vertical versus the horizontal, a debate spinning endlessly.

Building from Baldwin’s critique of Native Son, Mabanckou lays out the basic framework of his own wide-ranging literary approach, one that seeks to avoid the natural limits of the protest novel. Citing the prevalence of African genres he refers to as “child soldier literature” and “Rwandan genocide literature,” Mabanckou writes: “If we are not careful, an African author will be able to do nothing but wait for the next disaster on his continent before starting a book in which he will spend more time denouncing than writing.”

Instead, Mabanckou has spent more time writing than denouncing. Sandwiched between a first-person screed from an incompetent, would-be spree killer (African Psycho, 2003) and the loquacious recollections of a quilled-rodent who doubles as a mass murderer (Memoirs Of A Porcupine, 2012), Mabanckou’s barfly saga Broken Glass (2010) stands as an exceptional tribute to free-roaming expression. Streaming in pages of wined-up, comma-strung clauses, Broken Glass trips back and forth between the dignity and indignities of palm-wine drunks and social outcasts, at times recalling Ben Okri’s towering short story “In The City Of Red Dust” as it traces the intimate rhythms of the barroom to indicate something greater about the forces that produce such overwhelming desperation.

***

“Is there a disproportionate amount of outrage sparked by an event, a disproportion linked to a kind of hierarchy of communities?”

Mabanckou poses this rhetorical question in the latter part of Letter To Jimmy, leading in to an examination of the differing responses to a brutal, anti-Semitic murder in the suburbs of Paris. In France, Mabanckou considers the notion of a black community something of “an illusion,” with potential members drawn from too many disparate cultures and colonial histories to cohere around a collective awareness.

This “collective awareness” distinguishes the American black community, and time and again a disproportion of outrage exposes the fault lines of our divided nation. If white youths were routinely being executed by the authorities — if their lives were being viewed as disposable either by cruel error or during the apprehension for minor offenses — members of the white community would summon every power at their disposal in pursuit of personal justice and institutional change. They would, to put it bluntly, freak the fuck out. Yet many of those same white citizens expect the black community to quietly take it on the chin and absorb corpse upon corpse, regarding these deaths as nothing more than an unfortunate function of the system which gives us our necessary freedoms.

Dead over twenty-five years, Baldwin had already seen Ferguson. He’d seen homicidal police justice perpetrated by “some blank American boy who is responsible only to some equally blank elder patriot.” He’d seen cases in which “the Grand Jury had judged their shooting of an unarmed, black adolescent as ‘justifiable homicide.’” He would’ve known there would be no fair trails in St. Louis and Staten Island, for there can be no trial when the prosecution and defense are already in agreement.

Baldwin cited this insidious, epidemic version of white supremacy as the organizing principle of the western world, and as the bodies continued to pile inexorably higher he viewed “outrage” as perhaps the only path to creating a new American morality:

“When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt. When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities — and seas of blood. The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.”

Baldwin published these words over 40 years ago, and in endurance and the word he saw those glimmers of hope that critics like Cruse considered delusional and divorced from true political reality. But hope is the only passage out of despair and Baldwin continually put words on the page in that most powerful act of hope, the belief that the collective could be reached through the personal.

From this hope we have Alain Mabanckou, addressing his Letter To Jimmy to a global audience. From this hope we have Claudia Rankine, riffing on Baldwin’s words and potently exposing how slight upon slight builds to a solid crushing mass in Citizen. From this hope we have Michelle Alexander, changing the national discourse with The New Jim Crow and concluding her bestseller with the “The Fire This Time.” From this hope we have Killer Mike, in the immediate helplessness and despair of the Ferguson decision — despite his unbearable fear for the safety of his children and his rage against the American war machine — from this hope he found words that may have been more profane but which would have suited Baldwin perfectly, words which held the power to reach millions:

“These motherfuckers got me today. But with that said… you motherfuckers will not own tomorrow.”

Letter to Jimmy: On the Twentieth Anniversary of Your Death

by Alain Mabanckou

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