For a prophet, on his birthday.
Born this day, August 2nd in 1924, James Arthur Baldwin, was a prophet, poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and importantly, our witness who brought with him, into the earth realm, language to loose our chains and move our mountains. This essay is also published in my newsletter, subscribe here.
“Depends on what you mean by God…
I’ve claimed him as my father, and I’ll give
Him a great time until it’s over, because God
Is our responsibility…
…That’s right, and God’s only hope is us. If
We don’t make it, he ain’t going to make it either”
- James Baldwin in Conversation with Nikki Giovanni
Whenever people ask me what I enjoy doing, or at least what I feel called to do inside the earth realm, I say the same thing: I’m trying to be a writer, a witness. It’s odd, now looking back toward the first time I allowed myself to believe, I, a non-binary Black boi from Niagara Falls, could call from the depths of the English language, strings of sentences to say something about the nation, better yet world, of which, my inheritance stems. I felt, at those times, when I first started seriously writing, which of course, means nothing other than, I, at some point, became committed to expelling the thoughts dwelling between my ears into the world. Words, connected in intricate splendor, I found, could conjure contemplation and reflection, force spirit to raise dead souls, imagine the lame to walk, call the meek to strength. Only few writers, as one eventually discovers, can force our personal shadows into the light, forcing a community of exposed wonderers to dwell together, connected by the common language which forced our renewal. Few writers expose the innards of our lives and livelihoods; there are, even fewer of us who read with the intensity to be made over. However, there are some who write above the construction of time, who bare a universal witness, that unless the conditions change, will forever be useful to wade through such treacherous waters. There are few, and among them, there is only one: James Arthur Baldwin.
As I sit here drinking my morning coffee, listening to the blues, rummaging through the depths of my own capacity to find language to articulate how my life changed after encountering Baldwin for the very first time, I stare at these pictures of his beautifully complex face. These are some of my favorite shots of Jimmy — I pretend to have an intimate closeness to call him this; as if I got the honor to dwell in space with him with a mug filled of scotch, absorbing every crumb left by his language — because they showcase the fullest range of his spirit during the tumult of American history. He’s wearing a white poncho, looking rather angelic; a teacup, most likely filled with bootlegged Johnnie Walker Black never too far from his grasp; a cigarette and telephone always within the whisper of his lips. I wonder who he spoke on the phone with; Malcolm and Martin, in 1963, were both still alive; Lorraine, thankfully, was too; perhaps she pulled this soul deep smile from him. One can sense a level of freedom in his face; something, resembling peace, shadows his smile. If one looks hard enough, you can see the stamps laid on his skin, from his life overseas, running away and, as he proclaimed, toward America. Though, one can scarcely believe his mind wasn’t focused on the happenings of his country, these photos show the depths of a prophet and poet, someone who exposed how the nation could both murder a 14-year-old boy — allowing his murderers, which were numerous and mighty, which by all accounts meant the entire nation, to walk free — and march itself closer toward semblances of democracy all within the span of a ten years.
Inside the twits and caverns of his language we discover the very essence to living: tell the truth, regardless the cost. Lest we ever forget the price paid by our victims for this way of life we, all those born within the belly of this beast, live. In short, he needed us to know, it would cost everything we are and ever will be. James Baldwin represents, by the time I encountered him, both the embodiment of the transcendent power of written word, and a sort of otherworldly, though surely a product of this one, conduit forcing me to look within. I don’t want to create a God of Baldwin, for he isn’t one, but he surely dwelled among them; he sat with giants and made them smaller; he sat with the wretched and made them larger. Reading him forced me to sojourn with my words, to hold back the desire to casually throw language — the most powerful weapon ever bestowed on this mighty human race — into space for the consumption of other people. (Which people?)
Those who read Baldwin — that is: reread, break apart and away, decipher through, weep at the marrow, its innards — engage in a spiritual renewal, or better yet, an internal warfare to determine what to believe about the world: either what is said about oneself, or what one knows about oneself and their people. One gets this not solely from the urgency of his writing — Jimmy writes as if the world could simultaneously reach new heights of love and mercy and/or crumble all within the span of words flowing from his mind to typewriter (which it very well could) — but the unburdened, honest, barring of the full truth, in complex contradiction, to which he painfully laid before himself and then thankfully, us. With his pen, he invited us into a unique, but all too familiar suffering that turns the soul and trembles the mind. After reading him, how could one not only feel the weight of living in — and through — an all-white and vicious landscape, but right alongside, the raised chest of being born inside the most powerful conglomeration of people, suffering from a malevolent poverty of spirit like the United States.
A few years ago, when I moved to Washington, D.C. I could hardly think of anything else but working inside the U.S. machine, directly inside the very center, at the temple of our crumbling house, and I never read James Baldwin. This time, three years ago, offered the very first invitation to read James, and by this, I mean: picking up Giovanni’s Room — Myles chose it for book club — reading the first few pages and putting it down. Something about the language threw me off, put me at a distance, but I very much think it wasn’t his wording, so much as my insecurity which prevented me from believing what I was reading. “But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life,” caused great trembling within. I still haven’t finished it, though I can feel myself itching to pick it up again, but I while reflecting, I located the last thing that caught my underlined attention. After an evening of lovemaking, the protagonist, recounts: “I feel in myself now a faint, dreadful stirring… out of this astounding, intolerable pain came joy; we gave each other joy that night.” An exchange of pain and joy; of both sweetness and bitterness, entangled lovers — and language — could bring together, and tear asunder.
By the time I read any of his other work, I had, to my utter amazement and with overwhelming hubris, gotten a full-time job inside that belly, in the United States Congress. That time, nearly one year, was one of the great simultaneous [un]masking periods of my life. For, I had, like I had been trained to do, pledged allegiance to that great star bangled banner, stood by its creed that e pluribus unum, out of many we are one. However, there was no better place, than inside that haunted belly, to learn, what every Black ancestor has screamed into the wind: we are many, but we are not one, at least not us and them. During all those interactions, of which I now look back with almost disdain — not so much because of regret, but I wish I had the language, or better yet, the courage, to stand firmer and tell the truth, as plain as possible: our work wasn’t really saving anyone. It hadn’t taken me very long, to realize I wasn’t going to put a dent of goodness on that marble fortress — which, I guess, turned out to be an illusionary one, penetrable by hate and rage alone — but because I knew, or at least felt, since many of my ancestors had built it, I, at the very least, could work for wages, inside the tall buildings. I found, even my fellow brethren, of the 3%, percentage of staffers that are Black, weren’t willing to shake from the blinders, getting to the root of our purpose inside those halls. If we alone couldn’t, and we can’t, break this country’s commitment to rooting out its created nigger — and all its wretched images that coalesce the white imagination — then, at minimum, we could witness, share what it’s like, living where we do, in the skin we have, inside an America so hard to be proud of.
When this pandemic swiped across our world, I was up close, eye to eye, with how it would pan out. I remember thinking, during one of our last in-person staff meetings: “so many will die.” 613,000 Americans and 4.13 million of our fellow world dwellers were rooted out, so far. One must, if there is anything still clinging to life inside, must weep for the choices made to kill out the most vulnerable amongst us. Yes, to be clear, life handed us covid, but our government under that monster — though, we are right under another, different, ‘more refined’ one — placed it at our doorsteps; then, it took away the steps, the money, eventually the house, and then ultimately, slowly, the life. How could, I thought, it get any worse? That is America, though, one prolonged crisis, right after another, because, what I’ve discovered, it will pay until it atones, for all it’s done in the name of democracy, liberty, and freedom — all words meant to veil: colonialism, capitalism, and American (which has always meant white) supremacy.
“In your hands we saw how it was meant to be — neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.” - Toni Morrison, Eulogy of James Baldwin
On the morning I decided to walk away, the weight of the world — at least a white world on my Black shoulders — which produced too many slain Black children became too great a burden, one I would no longer allow myself to bear. I, too, as Baldwin had in a different situation, found myself “ashamed for being in that [place]: but, I must say, too, that I was glad, glad to have been a witness, glad to have come far enough to have heard the devil speak. “ I walked through the halls of Congress, I witnessed the room where Taney declared there were no rights of Black men, any white was bound to respect; I saw with my own eyes where Johnson had to declare it was the right of Black people to exercise their God-given right, those rights his forefathers (and he himself), took from us; I walked the grounds where the slave pins stood, and even then, at that moment, shamefully, I thought it was all worth fighting for. I worked there, in that place everyone had, in words alone, told me was mine, too, but I also was stopped and told I couldn’t go places my badge should’ve allowed. I wanted to believe when my grandfather took arms to fight in the Vietnam war, it was for democracy, for freedom, but now, I know, it wasn’t for freedom, for he himself wasn’t free. The grandson of slaves, a child of brave migrants who left the cradle of the confederacy, to brace northern ghettos and unfamiliar, though similarly racist, terrain, for thoughts at better lives. Something told me he did it for the flag, for what it stood, but there is nothing further from the truth: he fought because he had no choice. The power of American democracy leaves us to believe we have a choice, but in the end, we are programmed, until we otherwise chart a new course, to blindly do its bidding, all the while it steals our very living, in sacrifice for its great “American Dream.”
One day I sat in my office and read Baldwin’s letter to Angel Davis, who in 1970 stood against the Governor of California, and the entire COINTELPRO apparatus. He told her, in this time before publishing No Name in the Street, “The enormous revolution in Black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America.” To dwell with this for just a moment, I recall a deep lump forming in my throat because, even though I wasn’t trapped beneath an American jail, nor a child of Angela’s generation, I too, began to realize, the “great price [that] has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation.” I so desperately, wanted America to be mine, too — I even created an entire organization dedicated to realizing this dream — but I naively underestimated how long the line, and how close I was to the gas chamber, ready to take me in the morning, regardless of where, and for whom, I worked.
In August of that same year, a very good friend of mine passed along an opportunity to be featured as activist for change for the organization It Gets Better. I did not know then, what I would later learn, that they intended on following me to the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs. As I’ve written on this experience before, I will not discuss it again here, but standing there looking over the swaths of people of all kinds, I was “filled with hope the size of a mustard seed, thinking King’s beloved community was possible after all.” Again, I found myself veiled, this time not by the underbelly, but the full look at the entire beast. Standing below the grand shrine built for the “great emancipator” were thousands of people who believed, if not fully at least in some part, that another march would finally bring this terrible nightmare to an end. They, like me, were seeing not with our eyes, but with our dreams, we dream of a time where all are truly treated as equal. But, dear ones, the cost we must all pay, is too great for many of our fellow countrymen: we would have to begin again. The house is burning and it’s coming down fast; we have no time to spare, I can hear Jimmy saying, people get ready, chariots are coming, America’s time is just about up; those people, long oppressed, are stepping outside the gaze, into their inheritance; they, children of slaves, are putting on their crown, not much time is left. James Baldwin is teaching me this as I reread, as I cast aside my dreams for the witness, to confront exactly what’s in front of me. Throw down the symbols, his words decry, pick up the cross. Walk with the sinner, for they are the only ones who know anything about God, move the mountains with them, don’t not let time pass without preparing to rebuild this house.
Many a critic have held Baldwin toward the flame — propping up his once thought protection of, if not, affection for, white liberals, or his seemingly less radical views, though I think some of these criticisms are refutable — but many more found the mirror we’ve long been denied, the witness who shared his unmolested view of the world, as it was, not as it could be. For him, and for me, exodus into the unknown was our only possible escape. He left Harlem for Paris, though he’s said, it could’ve very well been anywhere, but here; I left a job for unemployment and uncertainty. It was distance, for the both of us, from something we found ourselves trapped in. I think for him and know for myself, this was necessary to fulfill assignment in kingdom.
One mustn’t forget James Baldwin was first, a boy preacher, who conjured from souls’ deep cries of jubilee; he watched, from his fourteen-year-old body, as men and women threw themselves before the God of salvation, the only thing which could save them from the world that hates them, and their God. Baldwin knew God was much larger than who we made it out to be; God brought with it freedom and if it didn’t do that, then one must find new Gods. And still, whenever the chance of life and death knocked at his body, he clung not to church doors, but the belly of a ship, which carried him back across the ocean our ancestors traveled time before. It was during this travel, when all he could do was listen and see, feel the waters vibrations, tapping his body, like morse code he learned of the people who decided to jump overboard — thud, bump, tap: his body downloaded an ancestral language, something only those who survived being the least of these could ever fully understand. Never too far from his God, or his people, James Baldwin dragged down from the ceilings of heaven language that could break chains and invite unbelievers to discipleship; James Baldwin was a prophet, who came as the ones before him to reveal what we refused, or couldn’t acknowledge, because of Jimmy, we have fragments to build a new world.
While finishing my master’s degree, I took a sixties in America course, and every week I was confronted by the same naïve ideas about this nations progress, as Baldwin during the later years of his life. People, and by this I really mean white people because I think, or at least I very well hope, many Black people know that the civil rights movement had as much to do with Black people as the Kentucky Derby has to do with fishing. Which, of course, is to say: very little. I know, there are people who think my statement is too far-fetched, but after being in this burning house all my life — and my father’s life, and his fathers, and their fathers — one can’t earnestly believe the American nightmare came even remotely close to ending when Johnson signed that legislation. I said this often in class and there were always a few faces, of those who professed themselves to be progressives and liberals, just as their skin conveyed their inheritance, that turned themselves sour. However, because of James Baldwin, one quickly learns, the prophet is hated, his poetry demised, his witness hunted.
During the last class my professor, who proudly participated in those marches, asked: “knowing what we know, who would live in the 1960s?” That question, his ignorance, and his whole-hearted attempt to be nothing more than be a teacher asking something of his students, made me angry. I responded simply to name his stupidity, but I found myself witnessing, sharing a piece of the story, a secret which my inheritance never lets me forget: we’re still living in the nightmare, just in different ways. He didn’t understand when I said, “I don’t know how you can ask that question. Not when Emmett Till’s family waited with George Floyd’s family to hear the verdict of another murderer of a Black life; not when, just the other day another little girl was shot by police; not as white people, mad America isn’t (or never has been) theirs, break into the capitol, halting the congress, and walk away with barely any scratches.” I remember he was utterly perplexed because his soul told him something his brain asked him to ignore, he found something inside his belly which confirmed, in fact, he had been seeing by dreams alone. Had he investigated the world for what it truly is, beneath the technological advancements, beyond racially ambiguous children, and diversifying electorates, beyond the “first Black” this or that, America was still paying its dues by sacrificing its darker citizens.
He quoted James Baldwin to me; tried to use the prophet against one of the children he wrote for and with. This professor, in all his innocence and bling allegiance, tried to change the language to fit himself. If only he would’ve done the opposite, changed himself to fit the language, as we who read to be made over do, then he very well would’ve asked a different question. Perhaps, though, I am being too harsh on that dear professor; maybe, in his heart of hearts, his truth sung an actual tune of hope, and redemption. Maybe I found myself as Jimmy had, beat up by reality, too scorned to sing anything but the blues. I wanted to understand, and yet, at the same time, needed to destroy that question and the undergirding altar for which it represents. America isn’t that shining city on a hill, no matter how much Kennedy, Reagan, and dear Obama, and poor me, wanted to believe it to be. America wasn’t created on the ideas of always doing better, of righting wrongs, of fighting for freedom; no! it was created precisely for the reason to which I am held to my inheritance, that the oppressor would always oppress until the very last of them remain, unless, like the pure fire of hell, it’s burned away, left to give birth, like a phoenix, to its newest self.
In his book, Begin Again, Dr. Eddie Glaude recounts a night James Baldwin had with some young students from Howard University, back in 1963. Glaude’s storytelling is fantastic, one feels as if one was in the apartment on Euclid Street; as if, one heard Jimmy call out for the bootlegger, needing a tall glass of J.W. Black. The night was heavy, Baldwin had been a part of an event hosted by the Non-Violent Action Group on the place of Negro writers in the movement, when these eager students — amongst them Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture — invited him back to their apartment. Malcolm X sat in the audience as Baldwin declared, “It is the responsibility of the Negro writer to excavate the real history of this country… to tell us what really happened to get us where we are now,” adding, with righteous fortitude, “we must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it.” The students gathered inside the apartment, like, Courtland Cox, Michael Thelwell, Muriel Tillinghast, and Ruth Brown would all go on to be leaders in SNCC.
People were just beginning to head home, when the prophet took to his pulpit, cigarette, and whiskey in tow, “gather round,” I hear him say. He first informs them of a truth, which no one asked of him, conveying that even though he did not choose to, and they didn’t choose him to, he must, in some way, represent them. “So… what do we do?” he asks, only to answer himself, “I’ll make you a pledge. If you promise that you will never, ever accept any of the many derogatory, degrading, and reductive definitions that this society has ready for you, then I shall never betray you.” The poet asked them to believe their eyes and ears; know from whom you come, yes the enslaved, but from people who never broke, or believed all that was casted at them, for if they didn’t, they would be as distraught as the white faces that gaze upon them. He left crumbs inside that apartment, jewels of the crown, for those young people. Hearing from Baldwin remade the journey before them. As it did for me.
At his funeral, Toni Morrison declared: “you went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, and ungated it for Black people, so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion.” The crumbs James Baldwin left the world, the something “left in the rubble” reveal the inner-workings of our intimacies; things become heavier and lighter after reading him; ones is freed from veils and illusions, while also bound to the possibility of another world. “Hold my hand, Lord,” I hear him say, on this tedious journey, where a great mantle of responsibility which not only God, but our ancestors, and his inheritors, bestowed upon him. There is no greater journey than the one goes on into themselves; where the meaning meets the meat; where the purpose of each breath is revealed; it is there, I think, where God dwells. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good,” says 1 Corinthians 12:7–9, and I’ve come to declare, though no one has asked, James Baldwin’s manifestation of Spirit was his witness, and I’m so glad about it. Down at the water, dear Jimmy, is where we meet for our chains to be loosed, our bodies lifted, our prayers exalted, and fire shot up in our bones.
“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”
-When Great Trees Fall, Maya Angelou