James Baldwin's Foreward


I'd kept my notes concerning Bobby Seale and Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, so many years ago. It was, actually, only a little over ten years ago, but it seems much longer than that. Everyone was so young-except Eldridge, there was always something of a deacon about that one. Huey was the dedicated poet, and strategist. Bobby was the firebrand.

I first met Huey in San Francisco, but don't remember meeting either Bobby or Eldridge then. My first recollection of Eldridge is in Hollywood, at the Beverly Hills Hotel; he was part of the Black Panther escort for Betty Shabazz. As for Bobby Seale, I first met him, if memory serves, with Marlon Brando, in Marlon's hotel suite, in Atlanta, the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral. He had been sleeping, was still groggy-was as tense and quiet as the air becomes when a storm is about to break. This was certainly due, in part, to the climate of that momentous day, but it was also due to a kind of intelligence of anguish living behind Bobby's smoky eyes.

This intelligence is unsparing-Bobby certainly does not spare Bobby-and informs this modest, restrained, and passionate book. I feel completely inept, almost presumptuous, in attempting to write a foreword to it. I did not go through what Bobby, and his generation, went through. The time of my youth was entirely different and the savage irony of hindsight allows me to suggest that the time of my youth was far less hopeful. I speak of this savage irony because the political and spiritual currents of my very early youth involved a return to Africa, or a rejection of it; either choice would lead to suicide, or madness, for, in fact, neither choice was possible. Though the American Communist Party, as it was then constituted, anyway, never made any very great impact on the bulk of the black population, its presence, strategies, and mercurial shifts in moral judgment disseminated, at the very least, confusion. Our most visible heroes were Father Divine and Joe Louis-we, in the ghetto then, knew very little about Paul Robeson. We knew very little about anything black, in fact, and this was not our fault. Those of us who found out more than the schools were willing to teach us did so at the price of becoming unmanageable, isolated, and, indeed, subversive.

The south was simply the hell which our parents had survived, and fled. Harlem was our rat and roach infested haven; Nigger Heaven, a vastly successful novel about Harlem, was published around the time I was born.

I have suggested that Bobby's time was more hopeful than my own; but I do not wish to be misunderstood concerning the nature, the meaning, and the cruelty of that hope. I do not mean to suggest that the bulk of American people had undergone a "change of heart" as concerns their relationship to their darker brothers by the time Bobby Seale came down the pike. They hadn't, and it is very much to be doubted that they ever will. Most people cling to their guilts and terrors and crimes, compounding them hour by hour and day by day, and are more likely to be changed from without than from within. No; the world in which we found ourselves at the end of World War II, and, more particularly, the brutal and gratuitous folly with which we ushered in the atomic age, brought into focus, as never before, the real meaning of the American social contract and exposed the self-serving nature of the American dream. And one of the results of this exposure was that the celebrated Negro problem became a global instead of a merely domestic matter.

It is in this sense that Seale's era is to be considered more hopeful; in spite of the horrors which he recounts, with such restraint, in these pages. The beacon lit, for his generation, in 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama, by an anonymous black woman, elicited an answering fire from all the wretched, all over the earth, signaled the beginning of the end of the racial nightmare-for it will end, no lie endures forever-and helped Stagolee, the black folk here Bobby takes for his model, to achieve his manhood. For, it is that tremendous journey which Bobby's book is about; the act of assuming and becoming oneself.

James Baldwin
St. Paul de Vence
October 25, 1977

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