In 2013, the great thinker and writer, James Baldwin might (maybe not) add: “…but then you go on the Internet, or you download books onto your Kindle…” We all experience pain and heartbreak of various kinds at some point in our lives. James Baldwin certainly experienced it as a Black man in America; as a homosexual in America; as a Black homosexual in America; as a thinker, writer, philosopher who spoke his mind in America. I loved his books (The Fire Next Time, Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room and so many more). his plays (“Blues for Mr. Charlie”), his interviews and admired him very much. Again, as I’ve previously stated in other postings, I probably have my mom to thank for she introduced me to a lot of writers and thinkers and musicians at a very tender age.
James Baldwin was born today in 1924 in NYC. He attended De Witt Clinton HS (Class of ’42), where he wrote for The Magpie, the school’s literary magazine and The New School for Social Research. For many years, Baldwin was considered controversial by some members of our society…he talked about race in very real terms and, though he loved his country, he couldn’t stay here and ended up moving to France where he found more peace living as a Black man and living as an openly gay man. Many Black artists and writers moved to Paris post WW II and found much more tolerance, but that’s a whole other posting for another time.
“When the protests of the late 1950s and 1960s that Baldwin wrote about brought the Paris expatriate back to the US, the connection between racial justice and democracy in America was once again at the center of the nation’s politics, asking every citizen to realize that his or her liberty was not freedom so long as other Americans were being denied their rights.”—Darryl Pinckney, The New York Review of Books, 11/25/10 It was in the early 60s that my mom schlepped me by train up to the Ethical Culture Society where we sat spellbound in the auditorium and listened to a Civil Rights Panel featuring Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and others I can’t remember.
Baldwin knew pain and heartache very well beginning from his childhood and throughout his life, but he continued to move forward and was not a pessimist and knew without a doubt, “The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.”
Anyone who has heard James Baldwin speak, will never forget the tonal quality of his voice, it was mellifluous, unforgettable. His words echo so true today in the 21st Century in a letter he wrote to his nephew, also named James. This letter was published in December, 1962 and here is an excerpt: “This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits to your ambition were thus expected to be settled. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence. You were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do and how you could do it, where you could live and whom you could marry.”–The Progressive, 12/1962
Of course things are better here, no one is denying that but it is important that we know our history, which includes “pain and heartbreak” and injustices and man’s inhumanity to man. As Baldwin pointed out in the quote used to title this posting, “…but then you read.” That quote continues, “…It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” We are all connected.