These Tales of Constant Sorrow

Watching the PBS documentary on the Freedom Riders this past week synchronized neatly with two novels I just finished reading. One of the novels was by James Baldwin and had been on my bookshelf unread for years. Its title is Just above My Head. It is nominally the story of a popular singer, his brother and agent, and the singer’s male lover. Like all of Baldwin’s fiction, it is actually the story of a time, a people and a moment of human history. The other novel is authored by Glenn Taylor. Like the PBS documentary, the tales told by these men are the tales of ordinary folks who insist on making their lives mean something. They involve sensitive portrayals of people in rough economic and racial circumstances. Those circumstances exist in a context of the very real possibility of violence. Baldwin lived through these times portrayed in the documentary and the novels. In fact, through his lyrical novels and his thoughtful yet incendiary nonfiction, he became one of its major spokespeople. His life and writing challenged the racial and sexual barriers of the time as surely as the Freedom Riders challenged the racial barriers to integrated interstate travel.

Glenn Taylor is a much younger man. His life had not even begun when the black liberation struggle in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s was at its height. As he freely admits in his novel’s afterword, he has only read and heard about it. Yet, he has created a scenario in his novel, The Marrowbone Marble Company that challenges today’s reader to consider not only the United States’ racial and economic past, but its current situation. His text equals Baldwin’s fiction in capturing the raw emotional tension of the period, while describing a social wound that has yet to heal. As these works make clear, it is a wound that may never heal as long as there are men and women in power who insist on picking at that wound’s scabs, thereby reinfecting it with the pus of hatred and ignorance.

The geographical locales of these two novels could not be more different. Just Above My Head takes place in the streets of 1950s Harlem, the cities and theatres of Europe and for a brief and dangerous spell, the churches and country roads of the US South. Taylor’s characters populate a mountainside cut in the backwoods of West Virginia. The time period shares that of Baldwin’s work: the 1950s through the late 1960s; and each locale’s torment is uncomfortably and ashamedly similar. I say ashamedly because it is the psychological locale defined by a race hatred that is aggravated by economics and police. Uncomfortably because it is a place all too many of us have experienced.

Glenn Taylor’s primary protagonist is a man whose parents died violently when he was young. This man, named Loyal Ledford, began working at a local glass factory when he was thirteen. Like most every other man at the time, he went into the military to fight in World War Two. Also, like most other men in that war, what he saw in that war forever changed him. He realized violence inside him that he never had acknowledged before. He also decided that there were certain injustices he could not abide. It is the latter reality that insures his future. After the war, he meets a man in college whose life has brought him to the conclusion that he must do something to end the US South’s racial apartheid. In Ledford, this man, Reverend Don Staples, finds a willing ally with resources. After a series of incidents at the glass factory that Ledford has returned to work as an executive, Ledford and his family, Staples and a few others set up an interracial community in a locale known as the Marrowbone Cut. Their experiment in antiracist living does not go unnoticed. Racist police officials and greedy businessmen cooperate with amoral politicians in an ongoing effort to subvert a future that history tells us was not up to them.

It is this same future that James Baldwin spent his lifetime exploring. Likewise, it is the same history that he wrote about. That history is perhaps best summed up in one line from a letter Baldwin’s publisher included in the brief yet powerful 1962 testament titled The Fire Next Time. “I know,” wrote Baldwin to his nephew. “What the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it.” Like the Freedom Riders beaten to within an inch of death, Baldwin’s brother suffered the beatings upon his body and soul that can only come with the angry and irrational barbarism of racism. For James Baldwin, that brother was not only the one with whom he shared the bonds of blood, but also all of those with whom he shared the bonds of race.

The Freedom Riders were committed to a strategy of nonviolence. Even while fists and feet rained bloody blows upon their bodies, they adhered to this strategy. This commitment was founded in expectations of justice that the powerful few dismissed as mere fancy. In Baldwin’s novels and in Taylor’s The Marrowbone Marble Company many of the characters also attempt to replicate this philosophy. However, the relentless presence of violence in their lives occasionally proved too much.

Sometimes it is the case that the wrath of a terrible swift sword is the only justice that can be served. This fact does not diminish the heroism of those that utilize the sword. It does, however, hint to their humanity. For, while one’s inspiration can be the gospel of nonviolence, the reality of the narratives discussed here is the presence of violence in every man’s soul. Like the movement for liberation that provides the setting for these stories, the struggle between that inspiration and reality also defines the struggle itself.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.