James Baldwin wept.
“I was wrong,” he said.
Winter 1986. February.
Baldwin stood in the living room of his house near Amherst, Massachusetts, watching the television news, which had just reported something new about Wayne Williams, the suspect in the 1979–81 Atlanta child murders, who was convicted—unjustly, Baldwin thought—of killing two young black men and suspected of (but not charged with) killing 22 additional black children. Williams’s attempt to get police files that might have vindicated him and proved that the KKK had committed the murders had been rejected by the courts.
Baldwin’s story about the Atlanta murders, in the December 1981 Playboy, had won the magazine’s Best Essay of the Year; mine, about the relationship between the mind and the body, had won Playboy’s Best Article of the Year. We were at Elaine’s for a publicity party. The paparazzi popped their flashes. We shared the same agent, Jay Acton. (The recent movie about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, is based on one of the projects that Jay had set up.) As we stood blinking in the flashing lights, Baldwin said that he’d heard I was going to be teaching at Mount Holyoke College the following fall. He told me that he’d be up the road, at Hampshire College. He had been hired as a Five College (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, U. Mass., and Hampshire) Scholar.
“Baby, we can keep each other sane,” he said. In September, I started commuting from New York City to South Hadley, Massachusetts. A party was held to celebrate Baldwin’s arrival. Baldwin arrived hours late in a taxi from Logan Airport in Boston. A few people scrambled to cover the cost of the fare. Baldwin took me aside and said, “No one was there to meet me.” We got drunk—which we proceeded to do frequently, usually in Northampton, at Fitzwillie’s or Packard’s. One icy winter night, as I drove him home, I took the curve on Route 9 toward Amherst too fast, and skidded. The car slammed into a funeral parlor sign.
“You almost went down in history,” Baldwin said, “as the cat who killed James Baldwin.”
We talked about writers and writing. (In a blurb for my first novel, Like Father, in a quote that my editor said was unpublishable, Baldwin had written: “David Black writes like a nigger. With great pain.”) We talked about neglected writers like Nelson Algren and Edward Dahlberg, and about the comedians Lord Buckley and Del Close. We talked about movies—Ride the High Country—and Hollywood gossip. We argued about race versus class. I claimed that poverty had more of an effect on our country than color.
“No, no, baby,” he said. Rich blacks had just as much a problem as poor blacks. Money didn’t make whites colorblind, he thought.
Baldwin talked about how in America being white was not a matter of fact. I was white, I said. Look at my skin.
“You look kind of beige to me,” Baldwin said. “When did you become white?” And when did I first become aware of racism? he asked.
I wasn’t sure. But it must have been around the time my father took me to a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.
“Some people,” my father explained, “think that just because people have different skin color, they’re better than other people.”
“That’s not fair,” I said, “We’re just as good as they are.”
Black radical attacks on Baldwin started early. In the era of Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, Baldwin’s position seemed increasingly anodyne. Toward the end of his life, when I knew him, Baldwin was struggling. He continued to believe that blacks and whites could work together to rescue the soul of America, which caused some radicals, black and white, to accuse him of being an Uncle Tom.
In February 1986—coming full circle from his essay on the Atlanta child murders—I was at Baldwin’s house and came in from his kitchen to find him standing and watching the TV news, tears running down his cheeks.
About the Panthers who had been attacking him for trying to work with whites, he said, “They were right. They were right. I was wrong.”
Photo by Philip Townsend/Getty Images