In No Name In The Streets Baldwin attempts to bear witness to the tumultuous and decadent era of the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin discusses his whereabouts during the murders of 3 of the movement’s most influential titanic figures – Malcolm, Medgar, and Martin; he discusses his involvement; philosophizes the meaning of the movement -and its key players, what impact it had on all Americans – and ultimately how it changed his (already cynical, detached and disenchanted) attitude on the possibility of America ever achieving racial harmony.
Baldwin anchors his story (a historical glance at an era of systemic deep racism, hatred, and oppression) in the dubious innocence of an old Harlem buddy who has fled to Germany to escape a murder rap (which is essentially and interestingly a gay-hate crime that Baldwin – a known homosexual – leaves unchecked and unexplored). Eventually, the suspect is apprehended, extradited back to New York, and is convicted for the crime of which Baldwin is never really certain of his innocence. Or, for Baldwin, it doesn’t really matter as much as does the symbolism of the (possible) acquittal. Baldwin is much more concerned with the American judicial system (and its evil and wicked relation to the McCarthy phenomenon) and, more specifically, the infamously corrupt New York court system, under which his buddy is to be tried.
For Baldwin, who has come to know firsthand just how crooked the white American cop can be – when no one is looking – he seems more interested in getting his buddy off the hook just for the purpose of sticking it to the (il)legal system – one that has victimized, murdered and destroyed more black men than anything else – whether his buddy is innocent or not. So, for Baldwin, his buddy’s innocence is predicated on the thought that, guilty or not, he deserves to be set free because he will never get a fair trail in a system which is designed to disbelieve thus imprison him by virtue of his skin color. For Baldwin, his buddy becomes a symbol of protest and rebellion against the American legal system for its unending history of injustice to the black sojourn in America.
“No Name In The Street” is certainly not one of Baldwin’s good books. It is incomplete (“This book has been much delayed by trails, assassinations, funerals, and despair”) and reads as though it were the kind of book that was thrown together to satisfy publisher demands, rather than a good, critical and practical read. At times, the book lacks direction and focus, it shamelessly jumps from story to story (with no links), and it doesn’t have an ending. Baldwin began writing the book at the last end of the 60s and finished it at the beginning of the 70s. Not a good point to decide to shelf an unfinished book…at the end of one of the most important eras in American history, and certainly the 20th century.
None of Baldwin’s ideas are fresh, but mostly rehashed and reinvented issues that we have already heard from him. He generalizes important dates and trivialize facts. “Now, exactly like the
Germans at the time of the Third Reich…the citizens [north of the Mason-Dixon line] know nothing, and wish to know nothing of what is happening around them.” Although he understandably compares white American citizens (during the civil rights era) to Nazi Germany citizens (during the Hitler era), yet, not all of white Americans can be described in such an uncritical and general way. Too many have acted, protested and died in defense if black rights.
Then he suggests that, if not for the Rosa Park’s incident, “we would never have heard of Martin Luther King.” The anxious fires of protest and rebellion had already been stirring in King well before the Parks issue. And to suggest that King – a man who had been born and bred to fight injustice and lead the path of struggle, had only been sparked by the Rosa Parks issue (one which he at first refused to lend attention to because of other issues he considered more relevant and pressing at the time) was the impetus to one of the greatest movements of the 20th century is ludicrous and silly.
Another glaring defect in Baldwin’s reflection of the Civil Rights Era (and the 2oth century in general) is his refusal to mention the importance of black women in the movement! Besides his gratuitous mention of Parks (to which he placed the greater significance of such on King’s acknowledgement, presence and involvement – not realizing that Park’s sit-in had been well-organized, rehearsed, and planned without any participation, direction, or even acknowledgement of a man named King), Baldwin makes no mention of Ella Baker, Hamer (and other poor, sharecropping women involved at the grassroots level), nor his buddies Hansberry and Simone, nor does he mention any of the women involved in the Panther movement, SNCC, nor does he mention any of the good things that Eleanor Roosevelt did to better black life.
By now, at this (lazy and desperate) juncture in Baldwin’s career as a witness bearer and truth-teller, he is journalistically tired, and topically repetitive (which is also why he could not do with “Evidence…” what Capote did with “In Cold Blood“), and is now presiding at his own “masturbatory delusion” while both fixed on and sustained by the tumult and decadence of a bygone era. And he knows that his time as a once brilliant and critical examiner of American culture and society has come to a dreadful end, himself desperately hanging on to weak and broken vines that once yielded sweet and succulent fruit: “An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives.” With a new world come new ideas and perspectives that are borne from new beginnings and bright experiences. Baldwin’s ideas and perspectives are doomed because they are not necessarily new or fresh. Perhaps that is why “this book is not finished–can never be finished, by me.”