Baldwin books take provocative look at blacks in America
The Evidence of Things Not Seen, by James Baldwin. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 144 pp. $11.95. The Price of the Ticket, by James Baldwin. New York: St. Martin's/Marek. 690 pp. $29.95. ``Atlanta became, for a season, a kind of grotesque Disneyland,'' writes James Baldwin in his newest book-length essay, ``The Evidence of Things Not Seen.'' At the suggestion of Playboy's Walter Lowe, Baldwin visited Atlanta to write about the child murders in ``the city too busy to hate.'' It was a strange and frightening case: A large portion of the city's population, its administrators, the victims, and the alleged murderer were all black.
Wayne Williams, the defendant, was never accused of murdering the 26 missing children, but was found guilty of only two deaths, both adult males. However, at a time when alarming numbers of Atlanta's children were disappearing between home and the schoolyard, this was a confusing and terrible occurrence. Baldwin concludes: ``Williams is not legally accused of the twenty-eight murders . . . it is the climate created by these murders which has placed him on the witness
stand.'' And later, he writes, ``He [Williams] has been tried and condemned for two murders, and even for these two the evidence is far from overwhelmingly convincing. . . .''
Baldwin uses the Atlanta child-murder case as a springboard for examining such institutions as the black middle class, white urban flight, the legal system, law enforcement, and Manifest Destiny, but the results are mixed. ``Evidence of Things Not Seen'' is a book of brilliant parts which fails to work as a whole. The writing often rambles, and the book lacks a focus, failing to convey an understanding of what occurred before and during Williams's trial. Occasionally, the writing is so subjective and op inionated that the reader may be unsure that Baldwin knows what he is talking about.
``Most White North Americans are always lying to, and concerning, their darker brother, which means that they are always lying to themselves,'' he states, and ``I have never realized how simple a matter it is to create a suburb.'' Comments like these leave the reader with the impression that Baldwin is improvising his conclusions without considering the facts. Whatever his intentions, the book tells us very little about Atlanta, Mayor Andrew Young, the victims, their parents, the
accused, or the city's law enforcement. As a result, we are left with primarily a restatement of the thoughts and opinions expressed in his previous books of essays.
Baldwin's essays, reprinted in a 690-page volume entitled The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985, have a deeper focus, are crisp and painfully autobiographical. They record the Harlem of the author's birth, the death of his father, and the extraordinary relationship between father and son, which provides a subjective but factual look at the life of a black American during the 1930s and '40s.
Together, these essays document the changes and development of intellectual styles and values between the period when they were written for such magazines as New Leader and Partisan Review and the present, when the author is publishing in Playboy.
Baldwin's essays established him as a social critic and literary writer. He wrote about Faulkner, Richard Wright, American films, the meaning of Europe for American blacks, and he detailed the shortcomings of American life and values without overlooking the impact of blues and folk culture on the life style and social alienation of American blacks. He wrote -- unfashionably and with great honesty -- that black was not necessarily beautiful, that one might be ashamed of one's skin and put off by what one
was, even among one's own kind. He wrote of the Harlem race riots and the death of his father with a clarity that transcended most autobiographical writing, both then and now.
If ``Price of the Ticket'' collects much of the best work of one of our finest living writers, ``Evidence of Things Not Seen'' is nonetheless provocative and reiterates the themes that have made James Baldwin a significant writer. Together, they constitute an important literary event.