Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: No Name in the Street, by James Baldwin (1972)

James Baldwin, with a copy of his 1972 book, No Name in the Street.
James Baldwin’s 1972 book No Name in the Street is in a similar vein as his 1963 book The Fire Next Time. (I recently reviewed The Fire Next Time here.) No Name in the Street collects Baldwin’s thoughts on race in America, and comparing it to The Fire Next Time, you can easily see how much changed during those nine years. Although great progress was made legally, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed poll taxes, these legal steps forward are not the focus of Baldwin’s essay. Instead, No Name in the Street focuses on the despair that Baldwin felt after the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin is angry, and rightfully so. He has seen the civil rights movement’s bright promise fade out.

No Name in the Street is a brutally honest book, and Baldwin pulls no punches in it. Where The Fire Next Time held out the hope of peace between blacks and whites, in No Name in the Streets Baldwin compares America to Nazi Germany.

In both books, Baldwin examines some of the most radical elements in the civil rights movement. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is intrigued by the Nation of Islam, but he ultimately rejects their black separatism. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin is intrigued by the Black Panther movement. This makes sense, as the Nation of Islam was the leading radical African American movement in 1963, and the Black Panthers were the leading radical African American movement in 1972.

Along with the difference in tone, Baldwin’s writing in No Name in the Street is looser and more elastic. No Name in the Street is a more rambling and discursive book than the tightly focused The Fire Next Time, as Baldwin often ping-pongs back and forth between ideas. It’s sometimes hard to follow his train of thought. For example, there is a sentence on pages 58 and 59 with 13 commas in it! It might be Baldwin’s anger and outrage that makes it a looser book-he’s no longer trying to convince a skeptical audience-you’re either with him on these issues or you’re not.

There are many excellent passages throughout No Name in the Street, but perhaps my favorite one was this: “Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an uncontested miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” (p.9-10)

No Name in the Street is another look by James Baldwin at the complex issue of race in America, and it is as relevant in 2016 as it was in 1972.

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