This Morning, This Evening, So Soon by James Baldwin, 1965

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by James Baldwin, 1965

The best-known story in James Baldwin's volume Going to Meet the Man is "Sonny's Blues." It is a story of brothers and of brotherhood and of the need for connecting and "communicating"—ostensibly through music but also in words—that both epitomizes and transcends the life and outlook and the failures and frustrations, as well as the triumphs, of the African American and the jazz musician's experience in the urban United States.

"This Morning, This Evening, So Soon," a well-known story from Man, adds a more distanced but equally universal and transcendent perspective on the African American urban experience. It does so by juxtaposing the United States with France and New York with Paris. Both stories reflect Baldwin's own struggle to find his voice and himself and to be heard. Hearing himself at the most authentic level and honestly expressing that to others—connecting the delight and the angst of black experiences to blacks and to nonblacks alike—became the controlling purpose of his art.

Baldwin's many works hit hard at a sense of justice forsaken, and they cut deep—to the quick of the complicated issues of prejudice, racism, and the culture's overall tolerance of diversity. His early years as a preacher—and his eventual disillusionment—shine through his fiction, each work making and calling for the reader's decision not so much for Christ in the abstract as for simple human decency, civility, and the basic Christian tenets of love and forgiveness.

"This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" dramatizes the profound effect Baldwin's expatriate stay in France had on him and the jolt that his reentry into the United States produced. Baldwin's closest analogue in the story is the movie star, a celebrity singer who serves as the story's narrator, and beyond him the persona of Chico, a man consumed by hatred for his Martinique mother and his French father and by anger against all black women and white men. It is a character the narrator assumes in one of his most successful films.

Baldwin, who is seen in varying degrees in all of his story's characters, is closest to the narrator's friend Vidal. His editorializing on film and on the essences that, as a director, he must draw out of the narrator's past, reveal Baldwin's own zeal for the efficacy of art, whether on celluloid images or ink on the page.

"This Morning, This Evening, So Soon" takes place on the eve of the narrator's return to the United States after 12 years in France and the attainment of celebrity status as a singer and film star. He is in love with his Swedish wife, Harriet, and their young son, Paul. In his marriage and family, as well as in his art and friendships with persons like Vidal, who impose no stereotypes of slavery or negritude or inferiority on him, he has come to love Paris. His sister's visit reminds him of the racism of their Alabama beginnings, as do associated flashbacks of his brief visit a few years before to New York. Remembering the strategies needed to cope with the ingrained prejudice of Americans angers him and makes him wish that his son could remain oblivious to such things.

The night of conviviality with Vidal and some college-age tourists before the departure for New York is a poignant reminder that he must take Paul with him. Like his father, Paul must know the truth of his American ancestry and his birthright, blemished by prejudice though it may be. It is inevitable.

In the story's final scene the narrator arrives in the early morning at Mme Dumont's, where Paul has been cared for during the night, and swoops him up from his sleep to prepare for the journey—"Fusqu'au nouveau monde!" Together they ride the apartment house elevator up, the symbolic start of the voyage to the new world. The suggestion lingers that perhaps it will be a new world, a new dawning for Paul, contrary to the narrator's experiences in his own lifetime and in his father's before him.

Baldwin believed that to be black and to be an American was to live in rage. And yet, as the story shows, such rage is not without assuagement. In this sense if in no other, Baldwin was like most writers in that he knew the power of a "timely utterance." He knew that words, as communicated through art, could matter most, if not in the result at least in the telling.

—Robert Franklin Gish