On Raisins And Lemons Of Sorts::: James Baldwin’s Negro American Male And Middle Class Values

In “The Cross Of Redemption: Uncollected Writings”, edited by Randall Kenan, there is an essay, a review of sorts, written by James Baldwin. While it begins as a rebuttal(of sorts…) to Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s apparently scathing review of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, it courses through a segue on Negro American Males. Mr. James’s use of “negro” here is purely racial nomenclature, unlike H. Rap Brown’s utilization as class based epithet. As Kenan observes, Mr. James is a former student(of sorts…) of Richard Wright. Despite this, Mr. James compares both Wright’s Native Son and Ms. Lorraine’s Raisin.


His criticism, while harsh, does set a stage(of sorts) for this essay’s more vibrant socio-political points. Of Wright’s classic work, he pens:


In my own reading of Native Son, it seems to me that where the polemic is most strong,
the novel is least true; and, conversely, that the real fury of the novel tends to complicate and compromise and finally, indeed, to invalidate the novelist’s social and political attitudes.

“Is A Raisin in the Sun a Lemon in the Dark?”, James Baldwin, found in “The Cross Of Redemption: Uncollected Writings”, pg 25


While biting, it does offer more for other authors and screenwriters to learn from than Wright’s own criticisms of other US Black Women writers, namely Zora Neale Hurston. It should also be noted, of course, Mr. James has his own social and political attitudes to address in this piece.


His discussion weaves through Native Son, finding intricate and delicately nuanced symmetry with Ms. Lorraine’s Raisin. This leads his centerpiece topic, that one element that connects both stories, in his terms, “Negro American males”, with a particular focus on his “Negro woman” given Lorraine’s overall focus in Raisin.


Of “Negro American Males”, this honored scribe notes:


It is dangerous to be an American Negro male. America has never wanted its Negroes to be men, and does not, generally, treat them as men. It treats them as mascots, pets, or things. Every Negro woman knows what her man faces when he goes out to work, and what poison he will probably bring back. There is no guarantee that she will always be able to suck the poison out of him; the more particularly as the male’s aspirations, and his failures, are so thoroughly bound up with herself.

pg. 26


While this is written in 1961, although by a Gay American Negro male, it probably will need some qualifications to be palatable across climates of various temporal sensibilities. I am sure Mr. James’s sentiment here is regarding those US Black Women(“Every Negro woman”) who are involved with US Black men. Given a man of such renown insights, I find it difficult to believe he meant to overlook every other US Black Woman who do not wish to engage men romantically, in particular, or even just US Black men. That bit of courtesy aside, I do believe it is a powerfully apt statement, especially written in 1961. Even more so, from a vantage point 56 years out, where it still rings true. Privilege and toxicity, be damned, I am sure.


I do think it is only fair to consider Mr. James’s words relating to this aspect of US Black sexual politics as it informs his analysis and critique of Ms. Lorraine’s Raisin. Even his thoughts on “the male’s aspirations” must be weighted by that auspice. He concludes this review of sorts with his own ruminations of that USAmerican middle class lifestyle, and USAmerican aspirations in general.


He writes:


I am not myself terribly worried about color TV and split-level houses, etc., since I consider my life to be already sufficiently compromised by the garbage of this century. My own rather melancholy feeling is that as long as people want these things, they will do everything in their power to get them; when they want something better, they will make it; all I can do in the meantime, it seems to me, is attempt to prove, by hard precept and harder example, that people can be better than they are. I see no point in railing against the American middle class as such. They are a pretty sorry lot, God knows, but they are suffering here in their tawdry splendor. What one has to do, I think,
is undermine the standards by which they imagine themselves to live. As for the rise of the Negro into the middle class, I am not certain that what is happening in this country can be summed up quite so neatly. It doesn’t look much like a rise to me; it looks more like an insane rout, with white people fleeing to the suburbs of cities, hotly pursued by Negroes. In any case, by the time anything we can comfortably speak of as a “rise” has occurred, this country will be, for better or worse, unrecognizable.

pg. 27