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20 Books of Summer #15: Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou – An ode to James Baldwin

September 6, 2020 11 comments

Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou. (2007) Original French title: Lettre à Jimmy.

Alain Manbanckou wrote Letter to Jimmy in 2007, for the twentieth anniversary of James Baldwin’s death. It is an essay, a letter to a writer and a man he admires immensely, someone he feels close to. You don’t see it in the English translation but this letter is written with “tu” and not “vous”. It’s a letter addressed to Jimmy, not James, a “tu”, not a “vous”.

Mabanckou says it all started with a picture of Baldwin that he bought in Paris at a bouquinist on the banks of the Seine. It was in the late 80s, which means that Mabanckou was in his twenties. You can say that Baldwin influenced him early in his life.

Letter to Jimmy takes the reader on a journey through Baldwin’s life, his literary work and his essays. Manbanckou explains where Baldwin came from and how it influenced his thinking. He never knew his biological father and was raised by David Baldwin, a preacher who wanted his son to be a preacher too. This will be the material for Go Tell it on the Mountain (La Conversion, in its French translation)

Baldwin was born in 1924 and David Baldwin’s mother lived with them and she was a former slave.

N’importe quel Noir américain est attaché à l’histoire de l’esclavage. Sauf que Barbara Ann Baldwin est là, et l’histoire se lit non pas dans les manuels, mais dans les yeux baissés de la vieille femme.

Any Afro-American is linked to the history of slavery. Except that Barbara Ann Baldwin is here and history is not in school text books but in the old woman’s downcast eyes.

To James Baldwin, the history of slavery was in front of him when he was growing up. His father hated white people. James Baldwin will not follow this road because his white teacher noticed his intelligence and took him under her wing. (What we owe to primary school teachers! Thinking of Camus here.)

We follow Baldwin to Paris, we see his own thinking develop and set free from his influences like Richard Wright. Mabanckou explains how Baldwin wanted out of the Black Writer box. He didn’t want to write books only about the condition of Afro-Americans or with black characters. Giovanni’s Room is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a black writer but it doesn’t mean he must write only about black characters.

We go back to the USA and see Baldwin’s involvement in the civil rights movement. Mabanckou branches out and reflects on the fight against colonialism that Africans went through. He also broadens the issue and reflects on being black in France. This section of the book complement Christiane Taubira’s Slavery Explained to My Daughter. They are in agreement.

James Baldwin in 1969 by Alan Warren. From Wikipedia

Mabanckou pictures very well Baldwin’s unique standpoint. His brand of opposition lies in healthy indignation. Hatred and systematic opposition are not constructive. They burn bridges and leave ashes. Angelism is another pitfall. It’s cowardice and Baldwin’s essays are not gentle. They are documented punches aimed at facing the truth and moving forward. This is also Taubira’s approach and one I can relate to.

In the end, Baldwin shaped Mabanckou’s mind. He found in him someone who was brave enough not to take the easiest route, to stand up for himself and had humanism as a guiding light. Baldwin came out and wrote about homosexuality in 1956. He fought for civil rights and never fell for violent theories. He never let his personal experience foster hatred. His bright intelligence and insight meant a clean, direct and nuanced thinking.

We are in dear need of nuanced thinking these days, so reading Letter to Jimmy is a way to remember that such thinkers exist and that, alas, what Baldwin wrote is still accurate. Besides Go Tell It to the Mountain, I’ve also written billets about If Beale Street Street Could Talk and Going To Meet the Man. My next one will be Giovanni’s Room. 

PS: Letter to Jimmy opens with a foreword featuring Mabanckou lying on Santa Monica State Beach and feeling Baldwin’s presence. I know I’m obsessed, but it sounds like the incipit of Promise at Dawn, especially in French since Gary lies on the sand on a beach in Big Sur, which is not translated as such in English.

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