One of the reasons that Another Country is so special to me is that I first read it in a state of alienation. Although I had grown up in New York City, I had been, like many children of immigrants, kept close by. So every trip was a family trip; subway rides to anywhere characterized by limbs flailing over my sister and heads nodding off on my mother and shrieking laughter at the recollection of whatever story. Being truly alone in the city — walking down the street alone, refilling a MetroCard with no one peeping over my shoulder, making a litany of observations that would never be shared — was new. So was being in Greenwich village at all, where James Baldwin sets portions of the book in the late 1950’s.
During my freshman year of college, I lived in an NYU dorm on 10th street. It was my first time living in a neighborhood that was so white and so rich. In the winter, no one stopped to kiss their neighbors loudly on both cheeks, complaining of the chapping cold and the ghorba, on their way to return a single bedazzled t-shirt from Children’s Place. In the summer, no one played reggaeton aloud, or let their children run around the street sucking scoops of coconut ice, or yelled at each other when a conversational tone would do.
The brownstones in the village, apparently, were not for sitting. Generally there wasn’t lingering or loitering of any sort, except for in designated areas like parks. A pedicure accompanied every sandal, an iced coffee every slender hand, and it was clear that no one here ate Hot Fries from the blue bag. People were stiff and polite in their greetings, and were usually annoyed when their dogs broke composure to pursue others.
So for the first time, four years ago, I experienced something like existential dread in the city. One colored by race and class and not belonging to the place you find yourself in. And there Baldwin was, right next to me, walking down Sixth Avenue. Turning on 8th street for “no reason”, putting off his subway ride. Waving at his friends as they disappeared into the Washington Square Park arch, backlit by a deep red sunset. And there he was, watching white strangers look at him with pity, or imagining such a look; both options, of course, equally jarring. And there we were, looking at the train come in, “filling the great scar of the tracks.” And there it was, the train itself, stopping at fourteenth street, and thirty-fourth, and forty-second, and fifty-ninth, and 125th before the protagonist’s stream of thought is cut off forever.
Because, suddenly, “he knew that he was never going home any more” (86).
It is Rufus’s profound alienation, described so carefully and invasively and uncomfortably within the first 88 pages of the book, that leads to his decision to kill himself. Every time it happens — every time I read the novel — I wonder why he chooses the George Washington bridge, the water, rather than the tracks. Or some other city death. Is it a return of sorts…?
Every time I read Another Country I read the first chapter slowly, over a couple of days and in complete dread, knowing what happens at the end of it. I hate the first chapter. But I guess getting to rock bottom early on in the novel (although Rufus suspects at one point, when alive, that “the bottom” does “not really exist”…) in some ways opens it up to hope. As does the title itself: Another Country. It forces one to reimagine.
But it’s not just the first chapter; the whole book is so painful to read. The characters learn about themselves, each other, and the world by navigating the complexity of interracial friendships and relationships in America, but the cost is always very great. The characters are so horrible to each other in the process of their learning, lying more often than telling the truth, sneering and insulting and backbiting, abusing each other mentally and spiritually and physically again and again, often in the name of love.
Rereading Another Country now, with the context of weeks of protests in mind, it is again jarring to see how relevant it is to reality. How similar the New York City of today is to Baldwin’s. When Rufus is in public space, the thought and presence of the police are never far away. The police are mentioned on the very first page, and make their way into every couple of pages in that first chapter:
“He thought of the white policemen and the money they made on black flesh, the money the whole world made” (7).
When Rufus walks through the streets at night, poor and hungry and at the ever shifting stage of rock bottom, he is ever-conscious of their looks. He is fearful of lingering where they can find him and is painfully aware that nowhere is safe.
Baldwin occupies the minds of his white and black characters with ease, and at one point he experiences the presence of cops through Vivaldo, a white man and “the only friend he [Rufus] had left in the city, or maybe in the world” (3). In the scene where Vivaldo walks around with Leona, Rufus’s ex-girlfriend and a victim of his physical abuse, he is astutely aware of his own privilege: “He had never been afraid of policemen before; he had merely despised them. But now he felt the impersonality of the uniform, the emptiness of the streets. He felt what the policeman might say and so if he had been Rufus, walking here with his arm around Leona” (59). This translates for Vivaldo into a vague sense of unease, of complicity, and of guilt.
Sometimes I envision Baldwin as I read his words. That curling smile across his face. That very black shade of black, that 5'6 frame. That charming gap between his front teeth (did he find it charming?). I think about the exact identity formations that make us write the way we do, the combination of grotesque and beautiful features and identity traits and removed experiences that move us through our various patterns. I wonder how the people of the Greenwich Village would be like, how they would write, how they would think, how they would say hello, if the neighborhood didn’t look the way it did, hoses attacking the pavements in early hours of the morning, greenery managed carefully before most of its residents wake up.