The thirty-eighth book in the Penguin Modern series is Dark Days by James Baldwin, a selection of three searing and important essays – ‘Dark Days’ (1980), ‘The Price of the Ticket’ (1985), and ‘The White Man’s Guilt’ (1965). All of them draw upon Baldwin’s own experiences of prejudice, and a life growing up in poverty. I really enjoyed Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room, and have been hoping to read more of his work ever since, so I was very much looking forward to this title.
Whilst Baldwin’s prose style is beautiful and intelligent, the content of these essays is sometimes quite difficult to read. The titular essays begins with Baldwin’s beliefs about racial ideas which prevailed during the Great Depression: ‘To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all.’ He goes on in this essay to discuss his education, which he received in Harlem during the Great Depression: ‘My education began, as does everyone’s, with the people who towered over me, who were responsible for me, who were forming me. They were the people who loved me, in their fashion – whom I loved, in mine. These were people whom I had no choice but to imitate and, in time, to outwit. One realizes later that there is no one to outwit but oneself.’
Despite the brevity of these essays, Baldwin discusses an awful lot of topics, many of which are interconnected, in depth. He talks about race, the economy, migration, family, community, war, identity, politics, education, sexuality, and poverty, to name but a handful. He writes with piercing insight, and so much talent.
Baldwin comments throughout on American society and culture. In ‘The White Man’s Guilt’, he writes, for instance: ‘This is the place in which, it seems to me, most white Americans find themselves. Impaled. They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in these stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometime entertain with that black conscience, the black man in America.’
Dark Days feels incredibly modern, both with regard to the problems which it speaks about, and the harshly divided world which it presents. The essays here are important and insightful, and should be read by everyone. If we all took Baldwin’s ideas and sentiments to heart, the world would be a much nicer place in which to live.