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The Persistence of Memory

Searching for James Baldwin in Alabama

Issue 125, Summer 2024

Portrait of James Baldwin, 1965, oil on canvas, by Beauford Delaney (1901–1979), 25-1⁄2" × 21-1⁄4". Collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art © Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esq., Court Appointed Administrator. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Three years ago, I flew from Manhattan to northern Alabama to drive deeper into the Deep South. My mom had loaned me her car, which I turned onto the road at sunrise, with the windows rolled down so I could breathe the liquid heat of August. Rivers twist alongside the interstate and through the dwindling hills of Appalachia that roll around my hometown. I knew these waters, an opalescent blue-green-blue, from my childhood summers, but infrequently had those past years in Alabama carried me farther south than Birmingham. In my decade away, I had developed deeper curiosities about my home that now, fittingly, required a plunge.

I was looking at six hours on the road to visit a fellow Alabamian who didn’t remember I was coming. We had never met, and he was elderly with dementia, so he might not recall his past life as a painter or, as I had inquired in my introductory email, the moments he may have spent with the writer James Baldwin over thirty years ago in a stone farmhouse in France. Regardless, his assistant replied, I was welcome to come meet Fred Nall Hollis, known as Nall—we would just have to see what he remembered when I arrived.

I knew nothing about fine art, but in going to meet the painter, I was really after an encounter with the writer. Zipping south on the interstate, past Birmingham and toward the Gulf Coast, I hoped to cross decades and an ocean to an experience in Nall’s life that could link me, vicariously, to Baldwin. It was the writer who had provoked those deeper curiosities about what to make of Alabama, and what to make of what it had made of me.

On the road that morning, I sipped an iced tea and let sweat drip down the back of my neck. The highway south felt easy. To reach my destination, the challenge was going to be making my way through Nall’s memory.

I was eighteen when I left Alabama for college in Chicago, where the river is lined with skyscrapers and the earth disappears into a flat horizon. On the downtown campus, I discovered I had an accent, and a thick one. My Midwestern classmates liked to guess the source of my dialect (New Zealand? Liverpool?), and I found it amusing that the South seemed more foreign to them than places across an ocean. Folks poked fun at my accent, and then poked fun at Alabama—quips about country living, cheesy grits, and rednecks. Some of it sounded like home; most of it didn’t. But the jokes would subside and the inquiries would begin to evoke darker imagery—hooded figures rallying around a cross; bombs beneath Birmingham’s Black churches. Distance from Alabama provided perspective on the place, and I discovered that others didn’t find interracial dating remarkable, that being the first generation to never attend segregated schools was unusual. I hadn’t realized that the river, the high school, and (turns out) the shih-tzu of my childhood bore the names of Confederate generals.

I knew Alabama had a particular past, some ancient time of racial terror, but I had never considered its relevance to me. As the seasons passed in Chicago, I became confused, and disturbed, about the ways my origins had shaped more about me than just the way I stretched my vowels. They had shaped my understanding of the world, and understanding of others, Black and white. I felt estranged from home, which tugged a string of sorrow at my core, even as imagery of Alabama became emotionally synonymous with memories, flashes of soft color, from the childhood I had also left behind.

My twang began to fade once I began to hear it. The evolution of my voice wasn’t intentional, but I took my ignorance head on. I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates and kept reading, making my way to Isabel Wilkerson and Imani Perry, and then through David Blight’s Civil War histories. On a visit home, I took a Civil Rights tour through Birmingham. It felt invigorating, yet harrowing, to encounter histories that explained the world as it truly was. My knots of confusion slackened, producing a relief distinct from consolation.

In 2020—despite hell, high water, or pandemic—I moved to New York for a writing program and enrolled in a workshop with Coates. Once classes began, I watched the mail for a gift he said he had ordered for each of us. When I un-flapped the cardboard box, the glossy portrait of a man with fierce, luminous eyes and a cigarette peered up from the dust jacket: James Baldwin: Collected Essays.

Study this, I remember Coates telling us, if you want to really learn to write.

I had read some Baldwin, but began working through the collection, checking essays off the table of contents like it was a to-do list. From my Upper West Side apartment, I was squarely between his cafés in the Village and the churches of his childhood in Harlem. As I got to know Manhattan, I got to know it with Baldwin in mind.

His polemics are personal because he draws evidence from his own life, and it’s easy to feel like you know a man who offers his reader so much of himself. From the page, he could transcend the decades to be in my living room, speaking, smoking, smirking with me. In photos, he’s fashionable—silk scarves and neat, white shirts—and petite, with either a laughing smile or unforgiving gaze.

He opens “Notes of a Native Son” with a drive through Harlem in the aftermath of a race riot in 1943, en route to the cemetery to bury his stepfather, who had died of a longtime illness. It’s Baldwin’s nineteenth birthday, he notes, and he is a little drunk, wearing a black shirt a friend found for him. He writes that his stepfather’s intolerable bitterness had frightened him, and in the wilderness of smashed storefronts, he sees how powerful and overflowing this bitterness is that had, in many ways, really killed him. By then, Baldwin had already discovered “the weight of white people in the world.” The bitterness could kill him too.

According to his biographer, David Leeming, Baldwin became fascinated with the heart and mind. “What goes on in the great, vast, private hinterland of the American heart,” Baldwin wrote, “can only be guessed at by observing the way the country goes these days.” What effect, he wanted to know, did racism—its structures, language, hate—have on our private lives?

I began to feel familiar with Baldwin not simply for what I could know about his private life, but for what he could explain about mine. It was in “The Fire Next Time” that, to use a biblical allusion as Baldwin would, the scales fell, and I began to really see white supremacy, and its weight on the world. It clearly had devastating consequences for those who are not white, but Baldwin revealed to me its consequences for those who are: The Negro’s experience of how the white world lives doesn’t lead him to respect the white world’s standards, he wrote in “Fire.” Therefore, it is the white man who needs new standards, to “release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being.”

Baldwin’s language was revelatory, but my deepening affection for him paradoxically stressed the distance between us: “I know more about you,” he said of white Americans, “than you know about me.”

The distance was stressed by another faint commonality: Baldwin had likewise reached New York by way of the South. He wrote that Harlem was a community of Black Southerners who had been brutally driven north, his own parents included. His stepfather fled New Orleans and belonged to the first generation of free men. Baldwin’s earliest memories were with his grandmother, who spent her final days with the family in Harlem. She had been enslaved, and Leeming notes that the child saw her as a link to terrors of an ancient past.

It rained the day Baldwin left for Europe in 1948. He was only twenty-four, but too many days had passed where he was classified a Negro, rather than a man. American racism had yanked life out of too many friends: prison, addiction, police beatings, suicide. “My luck was running out,” he told the Paris Review in 1984. “I was going to kill somebody or be killed.” Of boarding a plane for Paris, he wrote, “I had no choice.”

While drinking with the bohemians, Baldwin found freedom to write. He wrote of the “interracial drama” performed on the American continent (“Stranger in the Village,” 1953) and of “the sunlit prison of the American dream” (“Everybody’s Protest Novel,” 1949). From the distance of Parisian cafés, he cultivated a new perspective of home, where bus boycotts and bombings roiled the South. The Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional; the body of Emmett Till was pulled from a Mississippi river.

“It was ironical to reflect that if I had not lived in France for so long,” he wrote in 1958, “I would never have found it necessary—or possible—to visit the American South.” He later recalled walking through Paris when a fifteen-year-old girl, Dorothy Counts, peered up from newspaper kiosks. In the front-page photo, a white mob spat on her as she tried to enter a white school in North Carolina. Her face haunted Baldwin, and he felt that it would be, he wrote, “simpler—and, corny as the words may sound, more honorable—to go to Little Rock than sit in Europe, on an American passport, trying to explain it.” He was carving out his artistic identity; he was a witness, and he wanted to see the Southern people: “Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”

James Baldwin in Durham, North Carolina, 1963 © Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images

I was procrastinating, likely putting off a draft for Coates, when I felt the space between Baldwin and me fold one afternoon. I had wandered onto his Wikipedia, and an unexpected detail on the page brought my scroll to a stop: In 1987, Baldwin died of stomach cancer in St. Paul de Vence, France. He was cared for by an old friend—who grew up in Alabama. The page said they had spoken about racism in the South, about homosexuality, about how Baldwin’s work liberated this white Alabamian from bigotry.

I had never connected with another white Southerner who had even heard of Baldwin. And I found it stunning that on such distant shores, one of my kind should be with him. I found that Nall, a painter, had returned to Alabama, to a gulf town named, auspiciously, Fairhope, in, uncannily, Baldwin County.

Paintbrushes are tucked behind Nall’s ears in one photo online; in a local article he’s grinning with his friend Ringo Starr. He’s always smiling, often playfully. He studied with Salvador Dalí and was influenced by surrealism—perception and reality: twisted and reimagined. Even I knew Dalí’s archetype of the movement: that wasteland of melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory.

I found Nall in Escape from America, Exile in Provence, a collection of interviews by Jules Farber, a journalist, about Baldwin’s life in the south of France. Baldwin’s farmhouse, with orange groves and a view of the Mediterranean, was a universe with the writer at its center and visitors—like Maya Angelou and Josephine Baker; like the local café owner and the painter from Alabama—constantly orbiting through.

In Escape, Nall says he visited Baldwin’s farmhouse throughout the final weeks of his life. He sat at Baldwin’s bedside and discussed white bigotry and Baldwin’s journeys to the South. A few hours after Nall left one evening, Baldwin passed. The collection includes a photograph of a short proverb, scrawled on a scrap of envelope, intended for Nall—some of the last words Baldwin wrote.

But in the collection, I also found discrepancies, like that Nall moved to his studio in France a year earlier than what is cited in his online bio. He recalls meeting Baldwin in a café in Paris, but in another interview, from 2020, Nall tells a local art center that he was friends with Baldwin’s brother, David, who made the introduction. I didn’t doubt whether or not Nall’s time with Baldwin happened, but I was fascinated to know the details, to feel the texture.

I later emailed Baldwin’s biographer, Leeming, who was with him in his final days. “So many people visited the Baldwin house just before he died,” he replied. These moments were all a long time ago and he didn’t, he was afraid, remember the Southern painter.

When I reached out to Nall, his assistant replied that he would be happy to welcome me for a visit and would love to discuss his experiences with Baldwin—while iterating the decline, and limitations, of Nall’s health and memory. I felt that tug of emotion, a pang of curiosity and longing, when I thought about visiting Alabama for this new, intriguing reason. I didn’t question if I should go; I just wondered how quickly I could get down there.

James Baldwin at home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, May 1972. Photograph by Yves Coatsaliou © The artist. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of The Baldwin Family

I felt that tug of emotion, a pang of curiosity and longing, when I thought about visiting Alabama for this new, intriguing reason.

“I may not have realized this before my first journey South,” Baldwin wrote, “but, once I found myself there, I recognized that the South was a riddle which could be read only in the light, or the darkness, of the unbelievable disasters which had overtaken the private life.”

It was September of 1957 when Baldwin peered out the window of a plane as it descended into Atlanta over the treetops and “rust-red earth of Georgia,” becoming fixated on the thought that “this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” Baldwin had become obsessed with the South, Leeming wrote, specifically his fear of the place, and his vulnerability to it. After securing reporting assignments, he began the journey, and though he “had nightmares about that Southland which I had never seen, I was terribly anxious to get there,” Baldwin wrote, “perhaps to corroborate the nightmare.”

The South does not get Deeper than Montgomery—a city that’s “one of the most wretched on the face of the earth,” he wrote. By the time Baldwin arrived, the Cradle of the Confederacy was rocked by the bus boycotts and the rise of a young pastor Baldwin had met in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. He saw the first White House of the Confederacy where, he was told, white folks still walk around inside and cry. The atmosphere was extraordinary, he wrote: “I think that I have never been in a town so aimlessly hostile, so baffled and demoralized.”

It was also in Montgomery, strolling down a sidewalk at dusk, that he first felt happy to be in the South. He felt like a revenant, an immigrant returning to what those in Harlem called the Old Country, the taproot. The “liquid heat,” as Baldwin described, burns to a cooled warm in the evenings. He was hungry when he spotted the glowing lights of a café. “I will never forget it,” he recalled.

Appetite and nostalgia must have untethered the reporter from reality, for Baldwin entered a whites-only restaurant in a time and place where such a transgression could be the opening scene of his nightmares. “Every white face turned to stone,” he wrote.

A waitress, “with a face like a rusty hatchet,” rushed and barked, “What you want, boy?” A man intervened with, “Right around there, boy,” and Baldwin realized that the colored entrance was at the back; he also recognized that this man thought he was being kind—“as kind as can be expected from a guide in hell.”

“Well”—he told himself—“this is what you came here for. Hit it.” Cage-wire mesh partitioned the back cubicle so that Black diners remained invisible to the white. He ordered a hamburger through a window from “Hatchet-Face” even though he had lost his appetite; he wanted to witness the experience of those who ate on his side of the mesh. As he sat beneath an electric light, the door swung open and another diner entered. Baldwin watched the older man with wonder and respect as he patiently ate—and considered those on the other side of the mesh, too. In the South, Baldwin approached his experiences as a novelist as much as a reporter, Leeming notes, remaining fascinated by the interior life, guided by the question, that riddle: “What did racism do to the inner lives of people—black people and white people?”

The trip South would clarify a truth for Baldwin, according to Leeming, that the fabricated “Negro problem” was nothing more than a scapegoat for the “white problem,” and that those who create this scapegoat suffer for what they do, Baldwin wrote, “by the lives they lead.”

Behind the mesh, Baldwin didn’t eat. He left the diner and dropped his burger in the weeds, and walked in the dark back to his hotel.

“In Montgomery I am frightened, and really feel myself in the Deep South for the first time,” he wrote in his journal from the trip, which I read one Saturday in his papers, archived at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He wrote in black ink, slanted script: “My dreams always awaken me.”

Years later, Baldwin wrote that he never fully recovered from the terror of the journey. In Begin Again, Baldwin scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. writes of trauma’s effect on Baldwin’s artistry—and on his memory. It was fifteen years after this trip that Baldwin wrote in “No Name in the Street” that he was emboldened to visit after seeing the photographs of Dorothy Counts amid the white mob. Glaude notes that this wasn’t possible: Baldwin had already returned to America by the time Counts began school, so he couldn’t have seen her on the kiosks in Paris. The timeline didn’t add up.

Glaude hypothesizes that trauma—King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X had all been assassinated within those fifteen years—caused Baldwin to fragment the memories and misremember. In “No Name,” Baldwin also writes for the first time about the “unbelieving shock” of being groped in the South by a drunk white man, one of the most powerful in the state, who could “prevent or provoke a lynching” with a single phone call. It was frightening, he wrote: “My identity was defined by his power.” Such wounds, Glaude adds, were inextricable to making Baldwin the writer he became: “The trauma guided his eyes (and his pen).”

Glaude’s observation about Dorothy Counts reveals another truth to me: Memory is not synonymous with our past. I know this is true of our history, particularly in Alabama (for, as Baldwin put it, if white folks think history flatters them, it’s only because they wrote it). But people have less agency when it comes to crafting memories: These are the product of the mind, a chrysalis where our moments shake the constraints of chronology and causality. They take on a new life of meaning and power, and re-emerge as memories. And even if the details change in the process (or even if the mind deteriorates with age or dementia), the slip of Baldwin’s memory raises the question: Have the moments lost their truth?

The morning of my visit with Nall, I texted his assistant from a hotel outside Montgomery. Passing through downtown, I saw the Confederate White House, but blocks away, the city has new sites of remembrance. Along the river, where the enslaved once worked in a cotton warehouse, a museum now chronicles America’s history of race-based injustice. And on a hilltop overlooking the capitol, where the Confederate flag was removed, nearly a thousand steel slabs engraved with names are suspended over the earth: a sprawling memorial to the Black Americans who were lynched. The White House may still offer tours, but it was clear that Montgomery has become a different city than the one Baldwin visited.

Since every day seemed different for Nall, his assistant had requested that I check in the morning of the visit to confirm that it was still a good day. I lived across the country, and my hometown was across the state. Flexible plans weren’t ideal. But by starting the day halfway down Alabama, I could make it to the coast by lunch, if I got the green light.

An hour passed before his assistant replied: Nall wanted to know if I could come another day. Damn it.

I replied that I could reach out when I was back in Alabama, adding that I would be happy to keep it to just an hour: “but if he prefers to not meet today that is absolutely ok.”

I sipped my coffee from the paper hotel cup and stared at my phone, willing the typing bubbles to appear with a verdict, feeling stupid for having come this far, feeling anxious to not impose. Maybe it was sentimental to think that making this tenuous connection to Baldwin would feel meaningful. Any information I wanted was generally online, even though the edges of the details blurred. It’s not like this visit would render them in any higher resolution, though. Whatever I was making this trip for, it wasn’t to verify facts.

But Nall’s assistant replied quickly this time—“So today is ok he says.”

Maybe it was sentimental to think that making this tenuous connection to Baldwin would feel meaningful.

I passed cottages as I arrived in Fairhope and smelled salt in the air. A ragged chihuahua stood sentinel on Nall’s porch and announced my arrival. Paintings were mounted in the window, and Ali, Nall’s assistant, greeted me and led me inside, introducing the dog as Biscuit.

Flowers were in most of his paintings—arranged with figures like a towering Pinocchio, split across nine frames, that loomed over a sofa. There were mosaics and eclectic chandeliers hanging like bats from the ceiling. It smelled of a sweet warmth, of laundry and orange juice and dog, a place where someone spent a lot of time. Nall sat in a recliner, his eyes fixed on a cube television. He wore a white t-shirt that hugged the curve of his belly, round like his face, which was fringed with a trim white beard.

Ali reminded him that the journalist was here to discuss James Baldwin as I took out my tape recorder. His eyes pulled to me, and he immediately began speaking with a light Southern lilt.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know how I can help you because I was really good friends with David Baldwin, Jimmy’s brother.”

I was barely seated on the couch when he launched right into it, and I realized that I had never spent time with someone who has dementia. He kept his eyes fixed just above my head; his voice was soft but monotone as he recalled: So David one day said, Would you like to meet my brother? And I said I would love to. So we drove over to this old farmhouse, kind of falling apart. He was already quite sick. And I sat beside his bed, held his hand. And I said it’s because of your writings that I have gotten over my complex of being a racist, being born in Alabama.

He went silent as his eyes widened and then squeezed shut: “And then he said something similar like, ‘I’m happy to meet you to get over my complex of being prejudiced against the Southerner.’”

The memory seemed to strike Nall physically as much as it did emotionally, because he heaved a throaty sob and the room went still. He wiped tears and breathed deeply. In the heat, my legs stuck to the couch and I felt anxious that this was a bad idea, that I had intruded.

“If you would like to stop, we can,” I said. “Or if you’re enjoying—”

His eyes moved to mine, and he said he was enjoying trying to reminisce.

“I have tons of memories,” he said, gesturing to his head. “Unfortunately, I’ve locked them in the vault up here and threw away the key.”

Asking questions would help, he said. Yes, he remembered cooking for Baldwin: “I think it was pancakes or…grits. That’s it—grits.” He was born south of Montgomery, the descendant of enslavers. After college, he moved to Paris for an art school and “broadened my horizons.” With distance, he got perspective on his native culture. And he too found the language to understand it in Baldwin: “I felt like I was reading forbidden literature.”

We both settled into the conversation, and even though he spoke slowly, with sudden pauses, he recalled his life with an endearing gleam of pride. He was charming, and I could tell he was enjoying himself.

I asked about France—there was a studio near the Louvre gardens, and a mistress, Juliana, who used to walk down the streets in black Bedouin wedding dresses. Nall later married a countess from Italy and established the artist retreat near St. Paul de Vence.

Biscuit joined me on the couch and Nall took us places we had already been (his friendship with David, sitting at Baldwin’s bedside), as though his mind lacked the friction to keep him from sliding into repetition.

“He squeezed my hand and I squeezed his,” he whispered, pausing to breathe through a sob. “And that was kind of like a bond of friendship.”

But at each loop, Nall’s memory gained momentum, surfacing texture and details, his eyes illuminating with fresh emotion.

“He held out his bony little hand once and I grabbed it. And massaged it. He said, ‘Oh, that feels so good.’ And I made some collard greens for him.”

He was more animated now, awakened. He said softly that he had loved and been loved by so many people. He’d had a fabulous life. He didn’t know why.

“Biscuit knows,” he whispered. “We can consult him if you want to.”

I grinned, watching Biscuit twist over for a belly rub as Nall reached toward him. When I asked about Baldwin, Nall touched his shoulders. “It was like…in a backpack,” he said, it being the heavy burden of racism from his past. He flipped his hands, suggesting relief. Baldwin lifted the baggage, he said, and sitting at his bedside had felt most profound. “I’ll never forget it,” he murmured, “even though I’ve forgotten it.”

I imagine that Baldwin’s work makes us feel something similar, that relief, but I think I understand it slightly differently. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free,” Baldwin once quoted, the truth being the “stupendous delusion” of white supremacy. I don’t think Baldwin has lifted any burden for me. But he has revealed it. And when he reveals the delusion and confusion, I don’t feel set free from white supremacy’s history and weight, but free to an otherwise inaccessible opportunity: to try to take some responsibility for what it has made of me.

“What else, darlin’?” Nall asked, his eyes now grinning. But his assistant poked into the room. Our hour had already passed, and it was time for Nall to exercise.

“Have you got enough dirt on me?” he asked, sipping his juice. “I hope I haven’t disappointed.”

“Not at all,” I said, a sadness snatching my voice as I rose from the couch. “It’s been really lovely meeting you.” I left Biscuit and crossed the room. I reached toward the table beside his recliner and clicked off my tape recorder.

Outside, the heat was bright and blistering, and that was it. I directed my car west and drove the half mile to the end of Alabama. I parked at the coast and walked out onto a pier in the bay. It took just a moment and then standing over the water, my own tears came.

Photograph courtesy Nall Studio Museum/Nall Foundation, Fairhope, Alabama

In “No Name in the Street,” the 1972 essay in which he chronicles his first journey South, Baldwin acknowledges that he’s blotted a lot from his memory. Images return to him, though, in “bewildering and untrustworthy flashes.” But he describes grits with great detail: “A pale, lumpy, tasteless kind of porridge which the Southerner insists is a delicacy,” he wrote, “but which I believe they ingest as punishment for their sins.”

I now smile when I read the passage. Baldwin’s funny. And I hope Nall’s memory failed. I hope that when he drove past the vineyards decades ago, and down the winding street in St. Paul de Vence to visit Baldwin at the farmhouse, which is now gone, torn down for a condo complex, I hope that it was pancakes or collard greens, anything other than grits, that he cooked for him.

What does racism do to our private lives? The answer solves the riddle of the South, Baldwin wrote. He remained an itinerant expat: New York to Turkey to France with returns to the South. He needed distance from America, which brought him closer to the place. The riddle could be solved in darkness or in light. I don’t know that I can ever fully crack it for myself. But I keep a bit of distance, then get home to see the rivers, to keep digging into my own heart. “It may be impossible for anyone to tell the truth about his past,” Baldwin wrote, in an essay with one of my favorites of his titles “Every Good-bye Ain’t Gone.” “You drag your past with you everywhere, or it drags you.”

And there’s a detail from the room that day with Nall that I sometimes forget, when I felt the proximity to Alabama was closest, and when I felt an unexpected proximity to the warmth of Baldwin’s farmhouse. The moment wasn’t captured on my audio recording, so it’s only in my memory. It happened when I left Biscuit on the couch and reached to click off the tape recorder by Nall’s recliner. He took my wrist—his eyes were a green-brown and round and now close to mine. His hands shook as he pulled my hand to his face. And Nall kissed it, smiled big, and squeezed it.

Anna Venarchik

Anna Venarchik is an editor at the New York Times and previously edited at the Oxford American. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Republic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She is from Alabama and holds an MFA in literary reportage from New York University.