The Anti-Colonial Vision of James Baldwin’s Last Two Unfinished Works
Bill Mullen on The Welcome Table and No Papers for Muhammad
In 1985, Baldwin’s published and some unpublished essays were gathered in a single volume titled The Price of the Ticket. The book was significant for both looking backward, retrospectively and in a monumental manner, at the whole of Baldwin’s life, and forward, to the beginnings of the process of his memory and commemoration. By 1985, Baldwin’s literary production had become relatively meager. He was tired, winding down, traveling less, and camping out mainly at St. Paul-de-Vence. The lover he had lost to AIDS, according to David Leeming, died with him there, his ashes scattered around the property’s garden.
Baldwin was committed to two writing projects in these closing years of his life. The first, begun years earlier, was titled No Papers for Muhammad. According to Baldwin biographers James Campbell and David Leeming, the novel was to be based on Baldwin’s own frightening encounter with French immigration authorities—one perhaps fictionalized in David’s near apprehension by the police in “Les Evade’s”—and on the case of an Arab friend deported to Algeria.
Baldwin never completed the novel. However, important kernels and seedlings from it did manifest themselves in what became his final creative project, a play entitled The Welcome Table. Magdalena Zaborowska, in her superb book on Baldwin’s Turkish decade, refers to Baldwin’s The Welcome Table as a “last testament” to major life themes, including exile, erotics, and the multiple identities of the diasporic black subject. It is also, as Joseph Vogel noted, the only place in his creative writing where Baldwin made reference to the AIDS/HIV crisis.
The play begins when Peter David, an American journalist, arrives in Paris. He has come to France to interview Edith Hemings, a famous singer and actress. The action then moves to Hemings’s home in southern France—a stand-in for Baldwin’s St. Paul-de-Vence property, where Hemings is hosting a birthday party for the 93-year-old Algerian exile Madame LaFarge. The play is a dinner party, Chekhovian in nature, with an assorted cast, many of them with non-fictional roots in Baldwin’s life.
Hemings is a composite of female artists Baldwin had known, including Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone. LaFarge is based on Jeanne Faure, a French-Algerian in exile from her land of birth and from whom Baldwin purchased his home; Peter is likely based on Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the Harvard African-American Studies professor—then journalist—who had interviewed Baldwin for Time magazine; Daniel, a former Black Panther attempting to become a playwright, a loose mock-up of Stokely Carmichael and Baldwin himself; Rob, Edith’s “protégé and lover,” and Mark, a Jewish man, also Mark’s lover; and Muhammad, inspired by Baldwin’s gardener, and the protagonist of his unfinished novel.
Baldwin’s primary theme is described by the author thusly: “Forays, frontiers, and flags are useless. Nobody can go home anymore.” While the play offers a sequence of characters permanently displaced by politics, war, sexual crisis, gender traumas, it is the figure of Muhammad, the play’s servant, whose “unwelcomeness” at the Welcome Table is Baldwin’s deepest figuration of dispossession.Besides the Arab question, HIV/AIDS is the other shadow hovering over Baldwin’s final work.
Indeed, Muhammad’s location in the “rambling stone house” which contains the play’s actions is marked frequently as a literal outsider: he spends significant time in the garden, enters the dramatic action almost always as an instrumental attendant, and provides a literal denouement to the action by leaving the house (and the stage) when he drives the erstwhile matriarch and original owner of the house, Madame LaFarge, away into the night.
The symbolic double departure of the fallen expatriate from Algiers—driven out of the country first by the national liberation struggle, and second by Muhammad’s escort—is shorthand for the play’s theme of decline and fall: from colonial grandeur, from theatrical careers, from revolutionary movements, from houses and homes. At a broader level, the text is a playful, sardonic signifier for a terminus, and crossroads, in the West’s history of revolutions, from Paris 1789, to Algiers 1952.
This is captured in the symbolism of the 93-year-old LaFarge’s birthday, possibly her last, which all have come to commemorate, and in this exchange between Muhammad and Peter David, a black American journalist, about Muhammad and Edith’s working relationship in Algiers:
Mohammed: “In my country—when she was home, there—she never serves us cake.”
Peter: “You ever hear of a French Queen, called Marie Antoinette?”
Mohammed: “She was—beheaded?”
Peter: “She ran out of cake.”
In The Welcome Table, the presence of journalist Peter David—along with Daniel, an ex-Black Panther now in exile—also provides Baldwin with an opportunity to explore the symbiotic relationship between African-Americans confronting American racism and empire at home (Baldwin began the play in 1967 during the time of the Vietnam War and the year the Black Panther Party chapter was founded in Oakland), and the corresponding conditions in France for exiles like himself.
Baldwin’s decision to end the play with Muhammad driving Madame LaFarge out of the house, and the play, bespeaks the text’s anxious, cyclical post-colonial thematic about the declension of Western empires. Their overturning is echoed by signs and symptoms of the erosion of the “other” Western hegemon in the play’s French setting—the U.S.—whose dominance as described totters under challenges by militants like the Panthers, imperial overreach suggested via allusion to U.S. political crimes in Guatemala (the 1954 coup), Chile (Allende, 1973), and both South Africa and Palestine, briefly referenced in the text.
Thus the play examines what might be called imperial fatigue, the ennui of “rootless cosmopolitanism” and exile as conditions generated by historical processes of national conquest, imperial domination, anti-colonial resistance, and displacement. As Regina, Edith’s oldest friend, puts it,” I hope to God I never see another flag, as long as I live. I would like to burn them all—burn every pass-port.” In so saying, the play’s other aging grand dame expresses an ambivalence about the inevitability of statelessness.
Which returns us to Muhammad: he is The Welcome Table’s subaltern nomad, waiting in the wings of modernity’s rituals of self-aggrandizement for, well, cake. As such, Muhammad embodies statelessness as a condition of lack, of national unbelonging, the condition of being, as Baldwin put it in the title of his final, unpublished, and incomplete novel about Muhammad himself, without papers. Indeed, according to James Campbell and David Leeming, the novel No Papers for Muhammad was to be Baldwin’s book based on his own frightening encounter with French immigration authorities.
Campbell also notes that the novel was to capture Baldwin’s “personal conundrum” that his residency in Turkey coincided with the “first waves of Turkish immigrants flooding into Germany and Switzerland,” a conundrum exacerbated by Baldwin’s recognition of himself as “the oppressor” as he put it in an interview, in his relationship to his own Algerian gardener. This paper trail around No Papers then serves as an ineffable coda to Baldwin’s confession from No Name in the Street about his relationship as an African-American to the Arab world: “as I began to discern what their history had made of them, I began to suspect, somewhat painfully, what my history had made of me.”
Clearly Baldwin saw in his X-ray examination of the Afro-Arab condition the skeleton not just of Western history but the master–slave dialectic played out on the backs of he who the former Black Panther Daniel calls, in The Welcome Table, “My Algerian brother.”
Besides the Arab question, HIV/AIDS is the other shadow hovering over Baldwin’s final work. Edith raises the specter of the disease in Act 1 when she tells her lover Rob, “There’s a man going ’round taking names, you know,” a reference, Joseph Vogel notes, to death in a Lead Belly song, but here specific to HIV: “You’re talking about the plague?” says Rob, “because of Mark?”—Rob’s other romantic interest, but not a sexual partner. Edith complains, “You don’t know where Mark’s been, who he’s been with.” Rob draws from the discussion a lesson about his loyalty to her: “For me, it just means that we are going to have to take seriously—what we always claimed to take seriously—our responsibility for each other.”
Baldwin was literally dying as he wrote The Welcome Table. All through 1986 he had been weakening, suffering from a sore throat. In early 1987, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. As he grew weaker, he was cared for by his brother David, and visiting relatives and friends. He died at his home at St. Paul-de-Vence on December 1st, 1987, with David, his one-time lover Lucien Happersberger, and his household attendant, Hassell, by his side.
Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is noteworthy that in his final major piece of writing, Baldwin at last faced the crisis of HIV, a dying man serving as witness to it. It is a fitting final act of political conscience from Baldwin, who aimed constantly to create and set right a new history from the ashes of its—and his—contradictions.
On December 8th, 1987 more than 5,000 people swelled the gothic interior of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York to pay their last respects to James Baldwin. The event inaugurated what might be called the first phase of Baldwin’s posthumous legacy. Global literary figures ascended the podium to canonize Baldwin as the most important literary voice of the U.S. civil rights era.
Baldwin was ordained as the writer who had most inspired what had become by the 1980s a renaissance of African-American writing, perhaps best symbolized by Toni Morrison’s anointment the year following Baldwin’s death as the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In her remarks at the service at St. John the Divine, Morrison praised Baldwin for his “courage” to name white supremacy as a subject for the black writer. Other authors who came forth in tribute included Baldwin’s friend William Styron, poet and novelist Maya Angelou, poet Amiri Baraka, novelist Mary McCarthy, and Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.The repopularization of Baldwin reflects fundamental unchanging currents in the conditions of African-Americans in the U.S.
Baldwin’s first “legacy,” then, captured in a tribute volume published in 1989, was as nominal mentor for both black and white writers in the post-war period seeking a means to wed political commitments to literary production, and to use literature as a pulpit or platform to tell original stories about the black diaspora. Baldwin’s death and commemoration also coincided with a general rebirth, or in some cases discovery, of African-American writing by colleges and universities. Baldwin’s work, somewhat neglected during the period of his so-called “decline” in the 1970s and 1980s, began a gradual reversal of fortune.
What was not much discussed at St. John the Divine was Baldwin’s sexuality. Despite the fact that he had opened the door onto his queer life more and more in the 1980s, especially in his interviews with Audre Lorde and Richard Goldstein, Baldwin remained at the time of his death a vaguely closeted figure. This began to change in 1999, when scholar Dwight McBride published the edited volume James Baldwin Now! The book included several essays directly examining queer themes and moments in Baldwin’s life and writing.
The book heralded and captured two aspects of black gay life changing at once in the U.S.: a recognition in the public arena of the sometimes “invisible” lives of African-American gay men, and the institutional beginnings of what is now called Black Queer Studies. Both of these events were by-products of the AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and the specifically devastating effects of that on the lives of black men (and women). Despite his belatedness in addressing the AIDS crisis, Baldwin was to become an avatar for both of these developments.
Groundbreaking scholarship has followed in recent years by scholars like Marlon Ross, Dwight McBride, E. Patrick Johnson, Roderick Ferguson, Maurice Wallace, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Matt Brim. It is safe to say now that Baldwin has helped to queer African-American Studies and American literary history, and that neither will ever be the same again.
We are now in the third significant phase of Baldwin’s legacy, the Baldwin of Black Lives Matter. Ta-Nehesi Coates’s 2015 book Between the World and Me, directly inspired by Baldwin’s The Fire This Time, and a bestselling meditation on police violence against African-Americans, was singularly responsible for the rediscovery of Baldwin by the Black Lives Matter movement. This is appropriate. It was after all Baldwin who insisted that the artist and the revolutionary were sisters under the skin, both with a special responsibility to society. A whole new generation of readers is now coming to Baldwin not just to help them understand and study the world, but to change it.
At the same time, the repopularization of Baldwin reflects fundamental unchanging currents in the conditions of African-Americans in the U.S. Rampant economic inequalities between blacks and non-blacks; disproportionate rates of imprisonment; chronic urban poverty. Under Donald Trump, black Americans have seen themselves marginalized further by the normalization of white nationalism and white supremacist ideas that have resulted in new far-right mobilizations, targeted killings of blacks, Jews, and Muslims, and the demonization of immigrants.
Baldwin would not have been surprised by any of these developments, but he would certainly have called them by their name, and fought them. Those tasks now fall to the next generation who may create a legacy to match the one he left us.
From James Baldwin: Living in Fire by Bill V. Mullen. Used with permission of Pluto Press. Released Oct 1.