Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.

Thirteen Needles

Twenty-five years ago this March, two burglars made off with 13 works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.  To date, no one has ever been arrested in connection with the theft, and none of the stolen items has been found.

Until recently, I had assumed the nightmare scenario for the museum was that all 13 pieces would remain missing forever, despite exhaustive efforts over the last quarter-century to get them back.

However, from a new book that tries to make sense of the Gardner heist and its aftermath, I realize there is an eventuality that is even worse:  What if the stolen paintings no longer exist?  What if they have long been buried or destroyed and all the inquiries into their whereabouts have been in vain?

It’s a terrible thing to consider—something, no doubt, that the FBI and museum officials have tried very hard not to consider—but we must entertain the possibility in light of the facts.

Admittedly, when it comes to this story, facts of any kind have been awfully hard to come by.  The FBI took charge of the investigation from the start and has been very careful not to disclose anything even slightly interesting about its findings.  That the case remains elusive after all these years only serves to heighten the intrigue into what is already one of the most compelling grand thefts in modern times—and certainly one of the strangest.

It was in the early hours of March 18, 1990—just as St. Patrick’s Day was winding down—when two men in police uniforms and fake mustaches talked their way into Ms. Gardner’s stately treasure house, tied up the night watchmen and proceeded to plunder their way through the museum’s storied galleries, crudely cutting paintings from their frames and leaving piles of broken glass everywhere.

Among the items they stole were The Concertone of only 34 surviving paintings by Johannes Vermeer—and Rembrandt van Rijn’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, which, apart from being utterly stunning, is notable as the only instance in which the great Dutch master painted the sea.

The thieves also made off with (among other things) two additional Rembrandts, five drawings by Edgar Degas, paintings by Édouard Manet and Govert Flinck and (for whatever reason) an eagle-shaped bronze finial from atop an old flag.

All told, the 13 works are estimated to be worth around $500 million.  On that basis, it is considered the greatest art heist of all time.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read, in the newly-published Master Thieves by retired Boston Globe reporter Stephen Kurkjian, that the whole caper was likely planned, executed and covered up by a bunch of ignorant, reckless idiots.

Say what you will about the art world’s evil, twisted black marketeers, but at least they treat their stolen property with respect.

If Kurkjian’s reporting is to be believed—a reasonable bet for a newsman with more than 40 years’ experience and three Pulitzer Prizes to his name—the Gardner heist contained no such James Bond-like elegance.  Rather, it was simply and tragically a consequence of an epic Boston gang war in the late 1980s.  Really, it had nothing to do with art at all.

Kurkjian’s hunch—derived from an apparently credible source—is that a mid-level mobster named Robert Donati carried out the robbery with an associate to facilitate the prison release of a key member of his tribe.  That is, he intended to use the near-priceless artwork as a bargaining chip with the authorities:  If they would agree to set his jailed friend free, he would arrange for the safe return of the art.

Fair enough, except for two unexpected developments.  First, the heist immediately became a major world news event, with not one, not two, but 40 FBI agents assigned to the case, following every conceivable lead.  And second, roughly a year after the theft, Donati, the alleged mastermind, stepped out his front door and was stabbed 21 times by assailants who have never been identified.

So what happened to the paintings in the period in between?

The trouble, as Kurkjian explains, is that mobsters like these have a way of not telling each other what they’re up to.  For all sorts of reasons—most of them involving simple greed or self-preservation—key details about major scores tend not to leak out into the greater mob community.  Indeed, even within more intimate criminal “families,” no one goes out of their way to volunteer information that could lead to double-crossing or glory-taking somewhere down the line.

What may well have happened, in other words, is that Donati panicked in light of the robbery’s wide publicity, hid the artwork where it could never be found and then got himself murdered without bothering to mention the buried treasure’s whereabouts to anyone who might still be alive.

That would certainly explain the amazing fact that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting of any of the 13 pieces in the last 25 years—a highly improbable feat had the paintings been freely bouncing around the criminal underworld, as many assume they have.

And so the ultimate hindrance to recovering the Gardner stash may not be a lack of cooperation from the alleged burglars’ surviving comrades, who famously pride themselves on not being “rats.”  It may be that these unsavory characters have been telling the truth the whole time:  That nobody knows nothin’.

It may be, then, that the world’s most devastating art heist was orchestrated for no good reason, with no beneficial results—not even for those who did it—and with no happy ending.  A disparate set of masterworks may have been buried, burned or otherwise disposed of without anyone even realizing it, and we may never know for sure whether the search is worth continuing.

That said, it is a great credit to our civilization that we haven’t given up after all this time; that the case is still very much in the news; that the museum is offering a $5 million reward and legal immunity to anyone who assists in the art’s recovery; that we recognize the intrinsic value of great art and have a wing of the FBI (albeit a small one) devoted solely to such recoveries.  That the Dutch Room at the Gardner Museum still displays the empty frames on its walls, figuring that sooner or later they will once again be filled.

Master Thieves—required reading for anyone with an interest in this case—filled me with much more despair than hope, even as its author maintains some optimism that at least a portion of the Gardner plunder will someday rise from the dead.  He trusts, as do the authorities, that there is at least one living person with an idea of where the paintings might be, and might be persuaded to divulge such intelligence under the right circumstances.

I hope so, too, but from Kurkjian’s own reporting, I worry that we’re facing a haystack without any needles.  That the reason no one has seen the missing art is that it no longer exists.  That not all mysteries can be solved—including ones worth half a billion dollars.

The most revered of the missing Gardner pieces—the Rembrandt seascape—depicts a famous event from the gospels in which Jesus calms a great storm by performing a miracle.  If we are ever to set eyes on that mesmerizing scene again—along with the 12 others—a miracle might be the only thing for which we can hope.