For my niece, Evelyn Juliette Ellington, d. 21 Mar. 2013, aged fifty-four, and her mother, my sister, Theaster Spillers Ellington, d. 21 May 2013, aged eighty-six
Aisha Karefa-Smart opens this collection on a personal note of the warmest reminiscence: Uncle Jimmy, her mother’s brother, is coming home for a visit, and it is indeed as her grandmother exclaims, the return of the “prodigal son.” In keeping with the high expectations of an iconic moment in the making, the “energy and vitality” of the West Seventy-first Street household are “elevated to a fever pitch.” Even the neighbors—not always willingly, as in the case of Mr. Kaplan, who occupies the first floor of “One Thirty Seven”—are drawn ineluctably into the unrelenting tidal wave of familial excitement—“the noise and the revelry,” “the joy and celebration of a multitude of aunts, uncles, cousins, fellow writers, and comrades in the struggle,” all converging on a white-brick four-story apartment building in Upper Manhattan. “For days on end,” we are told, an unending stream of well-wishers comes laden with the cornucopia of bountiful things—“gifts, food, and stories about their triumphs, trials, and tribulations” and perhaps above all, their witness that emphasizes “the impact his work had on them.” If Karefa-Smart is recalling the scores of witnesses who pass through her grandmother’s living room over the years in tribute to her celebrated uncle, then how many more of them must there be who constitute the writer’s global public, then and now.
This intimate portrait opens another window onto the life and career of one of the mid-twentieth century’s most important writers, and with the view, his readers acquire an enhanced sense of the impetus that evokes “My Dungeon Shook,” his letter to his nephew that inaugurates “The Fire Next Time.” Penned on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation—a description epigraphically embedded in the title of the essay, it begins “Dear James,” and inscribes a gambit into the future—my own generation of activist-scholars included—who would bear the full weight and consequences of that crucial legacy of the pathways of freedom. Perhaps we would not overstate the case to say that such freedomways were fraught with danger, insofar as that very moment of publication runs concurrent with the systematic breakup of the old regime of racial segregation, bolstered by every bit of domestic terror. Baldwin was accustomed, then, to talking to the young—not at them, not lordly positioned above them, but rather with them, in which case it was essential to get the words right: he’d begun the letter “five times,” he tells us, and “torn it up five times,” seeing the nephew’s face all the time, “which is also the face of your father and my brother” (“Fire” 333). Some lines later, Baldwin points out that both his nephew and his father resemble the grandfather, so that in a few lapidary brushstrokes, Baldwin helps us to envision three generations of Baldwins, bound by the mystic ties of kinship and resemblance. A gentle warning against despair, despite the fact “that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon,” the letter ends in the summons of a Homeric configuration of descent, as one of his line of epigones said, “The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off” (336). Wishing to adopt an idiom that would be performative as well as rhetorical, Baldwin signs off in the language of grace and benediction, which kind of strategy for closure distinguishes the Baldwinian canon. [End Page 563]
But what we had not realized was the extent to which Baldwin, not a stuffed shirt in any case, could actually play with the young. When Karefa-Smart’s brother TJ confronted Baldwin with a real question, posed every time he saw his uncle—“when are you going to write a book about me?”—the answer itself was more sincere than we might imagine. Picking up the little boy and swinging him round and round like all the other uncles...