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He also went on his last tour with his brothers in 1983. We have elephants, and giraffes, and crocodiles, and every kind of tigers and lions.
Vogel opens with Baldwin’s own words that a writer’s obligation is “to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him the people – all the people – who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there”(1).
Vogel’s purpose here is not necessarily to dig up and rescue Baldwin’s reputation.
James Baldwin died on November 30, 1987, at his home in Saint Paul de Vence, a small village on the French Riviera that, since medieval times, had walled itself around a hilltop church and castle to ward off the marauding armies of Europe’s kings and queens, marching across the Alpes Maritimes Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea.
Over time, the hill’s battlements and ramparts were covered with flowers, vines, and olive trees, and it is there, amid the narrow cobblestone streets, ancient crumbling walls, and tolling church bells, where Baldwin in his dying days, wracked with stomach cancer, seemingly no longer America’s race prophet, came to be with friends and family, in a final exile from the country of his birth, “the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen.” Baldwin spent a lifetime preaching that he “did not doubt for an instant, and [would] go to his grave believing that we can build Jerusalem, if we will.” And, while Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election may have led him to realize that he had not fully grasped “the reality, the depth, and the persistence of the delusion of white supremacy in this country,” Baldwin had never stopped trying to find—to write—a road to Jerusalem.
As Vogel explains, for Baldwin, Black music contained a code that “told the true story of Black America,” one that was “inextricably bound to suffering,” but one that is “reduced and simplified” in the act of crossing-over, as if white America, particularly in the Reagan era, could not bring itself to hear the code beneath the beat.
Similarly, Vogel maintains that can only be read as a repudiation of the John Wayne caricature of American masculinity Reagan embodied as president with almost cartoonish mimicry.By the time Baldwin retreated to Saint Paul de Vence for the last time, his critics believed he was in intellectual decline, having turned into a caricature of his former self, forever upbraiding America for its sins, incapable of acknowledging, his critics claimed, the progress the country had made on matters of race.Such criticisms could not have possibly come as a surprise to Baldwin, who often described himself as a sort of Jeremiah shouting at the walls, and who, as a former child preacher, must have understood all too well the scorn usually reserved for prophets whose anger, no matter how righteous, no matter how loving, ultimately grow tiresome to the very people the prophet aims to redeem.“I think I know how many times one has to start again, and how often one feels that one cannot start again,” Baldwin once wrote, but “one can never remain where one is” because we owe it to ourselves and to each other to “bear witness” for generations both past and yet to come.In his incisively reasoned and beautifully written volume, Joseph Vogel picks up on Baldwin’s theme of digging through the rubble and, in doing so, unearths new pieces of Baldwin’s late years.But perhaps also Baldwin would have found that form of ruin somehow fitting and would have dug through that rubble of luxury in order to bear witness to what all too often feels like a resurrection of the days of the Reagan era.It says something about the excellence of Vogel’s analysis of Baldwin in the Reagan era that, reading through the book, one can almost imagine Baldwin digging through the rubble of the Trump era in order to write a road for us to a Jerusalem that, somehow, always seems to recede before us.In that essay, Baldwin argued that for too long we mapped the American identity with rigid borders, as if marking the unknown boundaries where we dared not cross with the fearsome ancient warning: Here Be Dragons.Vogel digs down to the core of Baldwin’s critique of American society in the late 1980s: Baldwin’s map metaphor draws connections between race, masculinity, and nationalism.Powerful nations like America, he suggests, define themselves (like identities) by arbitrary and oppressive borders and by fear of the unknown.As shattering America’s self-image as exceptional model (and distributor) of democratic values, he critiques imperialism as a white masculine delusion as misguided as “those who insisted the world was flat.” Soon after Baldwin’s death, his family lost control of the Saint Paul de Vence home.