Another Country by James Baldwin

The title of this powerful novel is somewhat ambiguous and probably deliberately so. It might refer to the very different experiences that Black and White people experience in the USA. It might equally refer to the different worlds and experiences of gay and straight people, not to mention the many shifting shades in between. It might actually refer to the dreams and aspirations that we all have, contrasted with the hum-drum reality that most of us inevitably lead.

Another Country could even refer to that geographical place that we all dream about; some place that we imagine is so much better than where we actually are. I suspect Another Country for Mr Baldwin, is all of these things; metaphysical, socio-political and geographical. Either way, Baldwin produced something of a classic, quietly simmering away until it explodes into anger, recriminations and personal revelations. But what I found both intriguing and shocking about this novel was that some fifty years on, the sickening reality of racial discrimination is as alive today in America as it was in the 1960’s. Just why is it, I kept asking myself, is this supposedly most modern of nations stuck in a social dead-end when it comes to the question of race?

Of course, the problem is not just confined to the United States. Wherever Europeans hang their hat, be it in the Americas, Australasia or the African or Asian continents, it’s the same old story- a refusal to come to grips with Europe’s bloody ancestral history of racial genocide and an ensuing slavery based precisely on the lie of racial superiority. In order to justify this bloody and barbaric past, Europeans were fed this carefully constructed lie of racial superiority all wrapped up in all manner of pseudo- scientific nonsense. It was a toxic poison that has proved damn hard to shift. Even those Europeans that profess a scientific ideology more powerful than banal racism, cannot be sure that they are totally immune from its pernicious and debilitating effects. Baldwin’s novel seeks, amongst other things, to deconstruct that European racism through its wonderfully drawn and wholly believable characters.

Part of that deconstruction is an exploration of the sexual attitudes of white people to black and visa- versa. Baldwin suggests that so called inter-racial relationships are blighted by complex patterns of guilt, anger and a thousand other dark and competing reactions.

In a powerful exchange between Ida, the young Black protagonist and Cass, her white, liberal, middle-class friend, we can feel the steam-roller of stored up anger that is surely the legitimate response any Black person living in 1960’s America.

But Cass, ask yourself, look out and ask yourself wouldn’t you hate all White people if they kept you in prison here? Kept you here and stunted you and starved you, and made you watch your mother and father and sister and lover and brother and son and daughter die or go mad or go under, before your very eyes? And not in a hurry, for years, for generations? Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, while they go around jerking themselves off with all the jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with the same music too, only keep your distance. Some days honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days I don’t believe it has the right to exist. P343/4

And the terrible thing we must admit to ourselves; those words are as true today as they were when Baldwin wrote them fifty years ago. Baldwin provides bucket loads of this angry rhetoric and every word of it rings true. But Baldwin is perceptive enough of the human condition to recognise that all humans suffer in their own miserable way. Sweetheart, suffering doesn’t have a colour. P408 And in those few short words, Baldwin’s novel becomes a novel for all times and all places. Profound and perceptive as Baldwin is on the complex matters of colour, his overall sense of humanity invariably manages to transcend any questions of race. And it is this universal humanism that elevates Another Country to a higher plane.

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