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This semester, I’m teaching James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). As I reread Baldwin’s play, a couple of items stuck out to me. The first item that caught my attention was the continual references to poison or disease throughout the text, in relation to both Black and White characters. The other item that stood out has to do with the illumination of white privilege in the play, specifically during the conversation between Meridian and Parnell at the end of the first act. Over the next couple of posts, I will briefly discuss these items and look at the ways that Baldwin deploys them throughout Blues for Mister Charlie.
The image of poison and disease enters into the narrative from the very beginning of the text. In his introductory comments on the play, Baldwin explains the genesis of Blues for Mister Charlie and tells readers where he imagines the play takes place: “The play then, for me, takes place in Plaguetown, U.S.A., now.” Within this statement, Baldwin makes two important points. One is that Plaugetown does not have a geographic space. While the play does take place in the American South, the designation of Plaguetown, without a state attached to it, signifies that the murder of Richard Henry and the hands of the racist Lyle Britten, could occur anywhere in the nation. Along with this assertion, Baldwin ends the above sentence with “now,” signifying that the town and the action represent the present, not something that is past but something that continues to occur and infect the nation.
Baldwin continues by defining the plague that infects Plaguetown. He writes, “The plague is race, the plague is our concept of Christianity; and the raging plague has the power to destroy every human relationship.” The infectious disease of racism and hate renders relationships tenuous at best. In a system that privileges whiteness, the plague leads to the construction of fantasies and myths that exist for the sole purpose of maintaining power through fear of people of color. This aspect appears again and again throughout Blues for Mister Charlie, especially during the trial at the end of the play when the fantasies of Black hyper sexualization and White women’s sexual purity take center stage.
The disease of hatred infects the psyche of Lyle, his wife Jo, Parnell, and the other whites in Plaguetown. Again, in the introductory section, Baldwin points out the history of racism in America has seeped its ways into the bloodstream and draining it out of the blood requires a reckoning with that history. Baldwin discusses, at length, the role that history and the constructions of race in America have created Lyle Britten.
But if it is true, and I believe it is, that all men are brothers, then we have a duty to try to understand this wretched man; and while we probably cannot hope to liberate him, begin working toward the liberation of his children. For we, the American people, have created him, he is our servant; it is we who put the cattle prodder in his hands, and we are responsible for the crimes that he commits. It is we who have locked him in the prison of his color. It is we who have persuaded him that Negroes are worthless human beings, and that it is his sacred duty, as a white man, to protect the honour and purity of his tribe. It is we who have forbidden him, on pain of execution from the tribe, to accept his beginnings, when he and black people loved each other, and rejoice in them, and use them; it is we who have made it mandatory-honroable-that white father should deny black son. These are grave crimes indeed, and we have committed them and continue to commit them in order to make money.
Lyle, like Epps’ son who I have written about at length, did not just appear out of thin air. The legal fictions that constructed these systems of oppression moulded and shaped Lyle Britten and others. Interestingly, Baldwin does not blame the perpetrator in here; rather, he says, five times, “It is we.” This linguistic construction places the causes of Lyle Britten on the history of the community.
Baldwin does not let Lyle or other perpetrators of racial violence off the hook, but he calls upon readers to examine what has created a psyche that seeks to protect its constructed fantasies with such vehemency. Talking about his fears of being able to delve into the psyche of a murderer such as Lyle Britten, Baldwin asserts “that no man is a villain in his own eyes.” The man must know, deep inside, that what he does is wrong; however, the institution tells him that he is protecting some mythological order that only works by subjugating others to violence.
To end this cycle, the man would have to come to grips with the fact that what he has done is reprehensible, leading to madness. As Baldwin puts it, “What is ghastly and really almost helpless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness.” Coming to the realization that the crimes are “so unspeakable” would become something of a purging process, eliminating the diseased psyche and replacing it with a healthy one. The process would be painful, upending individuals’ belief systems and causing them to construct new ones based on acceptance and equality.
What is interesting in Blues for Mister Charlie is that while Baldwin dissects the white psyche, he only uses the word “poison” in relation to Black characters. The word appears three times in the play, and references to disease or contagion appear obliquely throughout. (The latter two apply to Black and White characters.) In two of the passages where poison appears, it relates to fantasies and gossip entering into the brain, the same way that these things enter into the brains of whites.
The first use occurs when Meridian speaks with Richard about the murder of Richard’s mother. Richard asks why Meridian didn’t tell him that someone murdered her, and Meridian replies, “I didn’t want you to be-poisoned-by useless and terrible suspicions.” Mother Henry tells Richard something similar earlier when she says, in response to the same question, “You’re going to make yourself sick. You’re going to make yourself sick with hatred.” While Mother Henry does not use “poison” here, the connotation is similar. While white men enacted violence upon Richard’s mother and murdered her, Mother Henry and Meridian want to protect him from being poisoned by hate that will destroy him and play into the fears of whites.
Later, when Lyle speaks with Parnell about his relationship with Willa Mae and the murder of her husband Old Bill, Parnell asks Lyle how Old Bill found out that he was sleeping with Willa Mae, Lyle responds, “He wouldn’t never have thought nothing if people had’t poisoning his mind.” Here, the poisoning, as it does with Richard, comes in the form of suspicion. As well, Lyle presents it as a fabrication, not the truth. It becomes a constructed fantasy that erodes the mind, leading to irrational acts. The fact of the matter, though, is that these are not suspicions. They are true. However, to protect himself, and his image, Lyle presents it as someone “poisoning” Old Bill’s mind. In this way, the poison becomes seen as a negative constructed reaction to the truth.
The last reference to poison occurs during a flashback a couple of pages after the above exchange. Here, we see the Britten’s store and Parnell, Jo, and Lyle talking as Richard and Lorenzo approach. Lyle says that maybe the men will stop in for a Coke, and Jo replies, “Why, no, they won’t. Our Cokes is poisoned. I get up every morning before daybreak and drop the arsenic in myself” (emphasis in original). Again, the use of “poison” becomes related to suspicion and false information. While it is used in a physical sense, the fact is that Jo does not put arsenic in the Cokes.
The constructed system that Baldwin describes in the introductory comments creates these poison suspicions, in everyone. As a result, it erodes “human relationships” sowing suspicion and fantasies in everyone. To engage these myths and fantasies, we need to first know they exist and then realise how we fit into them. Until then, the poison will continue to plague our psyches causing us to repeat, again and again, the cycle that we have been perpetuating throughout our history.
Next post, I’m going to write some about Meridian and Parnell’s conversation at the end of Act I. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.