Dedicated James Baldwin on the 94th anniversary of his birth,
with gratitude for the way he challenged and changed the perspective of so many of us.
Someone asked me recently, “Who’s one person, living or dead, you’d love to share a meal with?” I immediately replied, “James Baldwin.” Baldwin opened my mind to dimensions of experience I was ignorant of, which is why I’m sharing this with you. This renowned author and unsparing social critic woke me years ago when I read his semi-autobiographical book, Go Tell It on the Mountain. I’ve been grateful ever since.
Baldwin became an expatriate in 1948, moving to Paris to distance himself from American racial prejudice. He also sought to reckon with the ambivalence he felt as a young gay man. His second book, Giovanni’s Room, is a gay-themed novel written in 1956, well before the gay rights movement was in full sway.
Baldwin spoke directly, with brilliant, razor-sharp intelligence about explosive issues. In a word, he had gravitas. He was unrelenting in his message about the realities of racism, homosexuality and power dynamics in America. Baldwin looked racism dead in the eye and boldly laid out the bloody truth; his relevance remains painfully clear. To read him as a white person is to reckon with individual and collective conscience.
Baldwin also embodied beauty and kindness. Forces of love, tenderness and strength were woven through various speeches, interviews, novels and essays. Baldwin is poignant about the light and dark dimensions of human experience, which he never placed himself above or outside of.
In a moving letter to his nephew, he wrote, “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine – but trust your own experience. (from Letter to My Nephew, January 1, 1962) It seems he didn’t stray from this advice, nor the integrity of his convictions, even when he came under fire. Baldwin’s writings were as much an open conversation with himself as with the rest of us. As such, we’re invited into the conversation.
His passionate dedication to freedom and truth-telling equaled his passionate explorations as a writer and visual artist. Baldwin wrote: “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
This is my testament to a great artist. I bow to you, Mr. Baldwin, to your artistic sensibility, creative vision, clarity of though and moral audacity. You were, then and now, a voice for love, conscience, freedom, strength and vulnerability.
To get a direct feeling for Baldwin, check out the extraordinary documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
Reflection: Baldwin said, “From my point of view, no label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.” Do you agree or disagree with this? Why? What are the implications of your response either way?
The remarkable art image is the work of photographer and collage artist, Ruben Guadalupe Marquez.