Near the end of his life, James Baldwin met the novelist Chinua Achebe at a conference on Pan-African writing. “When at last I met Jimmy in person in the jungles of Florida in 1980,” Achebe remembered in a comment rippling with ironies, "I actually greeted him with, ‘Mr. Baldwin, I presume!’ ”
David Leeming describes this encounter in his intimate life of Baldwin, saying the author of “Giovanni’s Room” returned Achebe’s Conradian colonial joke by referring to “ ‘my brother whom I met yesterday — whom I have not seen in four hundred years’ — that ‘it was never intended that we should meet.’ ”
Baldwin was doing more than acknowledging how, for a time, African writing had been the domain of everyone but the African. He was also tipping his hat to the threat that Pan-African dialogue was in the face of global white oppression.
As if on cue, a heckler broke into the microphone feed that day in 1980. Baldwin ever light on his feet, told the audience and the heckler “the doctrine of white supremacy on which this country is based has had its hour and is finished.”
Would that this had proven to be true. Indeed, just a few months later, in 1980, Ronald Reagan, who had fought bitterly with Black Panthers as governor of California, kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi with his infamous “state’s rights” speech. Essentially reenergizing the dormant Republican Party by signaling in code that the GOP would happily accept the South’s institutionalized racism in exchange for political power.
In these years, long before 24-hour news, the Internet, and “good people on both sides,” Darryl Pinckney had fled the ceilings of black bourgeois expectations in Indianapolis for a bohemian life in New York City. His was an in-between generation. Baldwin, a powerful beacon to Pinckney, was 40 years older. Morrison, 30.
As a writer, one of Pinckney’s illuminating qualities, though, has been the probing respect and curiosity with which he engages his elders and tradition.
Since the late 1970s, when he was in his early 20s, Pinckney has been a steadying, enriching force to the New York Review of Books, the kind of writer the late editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein could dispatch to write on Stephen Birmingham’s awkward attempt to chronicle the lives of black upper classes
It would take him another 15 years to become the supple novelist “High Cotton” revealed him to be, and “Black Deutchlande,” published in 2016, after a 24-year gap, reminded us he still was. The two novels, meld two powerful traditions in African-American writing — that of the coming-of-age story, and that of the global exile.
Like Alaine Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine Baker, and many others, Pinckney ultimately departed New York for Europe, landing in Berlin and then for a time in Oxford, where he now lives part of each year. These departures have had the effect of tilting and pressurizing his views of what has happened in American politics, allowing him to see connections between domestic and international imperialism which are essential to their understanding.
In the meantime, since 1977, Pinckney has been running a half-century’s long clinic in critical thinking out of the New York Review, writing on everyone from Brent Staples, and Countee Cullen to Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward, as well as figures from European culture history who were black. For a number of years, Pinckney was working on a history of 20th-century African-American writing. In one interview he suggested it grew to 900 pages.
“Busted in New York,” which collects 25 of those essays from the last 25 years, is not that book. In fact, it is something perhaps even greater. Spanning the Million Man March to the death of Aretha Franklin, taking in the contested election of 2000, the rise of Obama, the ongoing harassment, imprisonment and sometimes outright murder of African-Americans by police, and the election of Trump, it is a book about a quarter century of racial struggle.
Pinckney is a companionable guide to this difficult era — like Baldwin, a fabulously erudite insider’s outsider: black and queer and thus always on guard for the way a situation will turn, surely his safety has depended on the maintenance of such sense.
As a reporter, on the ground, he is brisk, and leads with his hometown wits. On the Washington mall, and later in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown, he is the kind of writer who describes the making of community. The way people in the crowd say “Excuse me, brother,” and later take him in to a church for safety. More than once in this book he visits barbershops, looking for wisdom. When trying to illustrate a point, he often tells a story about family.
There wasn’t a critic in America who could speak with equal measures of warmth and intelligence like Baldwin until Pinckney emerged in his full power in the 1990s. Writing on his fellow expatriates here — Claude McKay, Eldridge Cleaver, and the black violin maestro Joseph Bologne, all but Bologne driven from their homeland by forms of racism — the anguish Pinckney feels to their dissolving possibilities is palpable and personal. He knew what they fled and what potential they held. Yet Pinckney's critical acuity never wavers before the pulse of biography.
Maintaining this level is one of Pinckney's other great skills. It’s not that he will not be rifled, or that he has a critic’s cold powers of isolation; rather, he remains committed to what Baldwin found in his life and work, a path between the poles of Washington and Du Bois, or Dr. King and Malcolm X, one of clear-eyed yet hopeful struggle and self-determination.
It is on these grounds that Pinckney criticizes Ta-Nehisi Coates — that in essence, he has given white power too much power by saying it is all-encompassing.
In “Busted in New York” Pinckney finds fellow travelers in his point of view in writers such as Margo Jefferson and Michelle Alexander, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Zadie Smith, who contributes a powerful introduction. Looping from past to present, the sine-curve of “Busted in New York” is still heartbreaking. From Pinckney’s petty arrest in the East Village for marijuana possession to Freddie Gray — killed in a rough ride to a Baltimore jail, the kind that merely banged up Pinckney — there is a direct line. Yet if you refuse to see the struggle as linear, Pinckney’s essays argue, if you work backward to see ahead, that line is — if not broken — certainly not inevitable. Along the way, you might just meet the man you’ve been prevented from meeting for four hundred years.
BUSTED IN NEW YORK AND OTHER ESSAYS
By Darryl Pinckney
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 416 pp. $30
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s and author of “Dictionary of the Undoing.”