Happy Birthday, James Baldwin


Had he lived this long, James Baldwin would have been 95 today.

I had purchased the (very nice) Library of America edition of his collected essays in print form several years ago, but I hadn’t read them until the fall of 2016, and I have to say that James Baldwin saved me. I would not have made it through that difficult election season or its disastrous conclusion (and aftermath) without him.

His wisdom and incisiveness showed me how to face evil without fear, to call it by its true name with courage, to propose remedies from a place of love, and above all to maintain hope, not from a place of foolishness or denial or lying to myself to try to protect my own comfort, but from a clear-eyed assessment of the disaster and an unwavering commitment to do what lies in my power to fix it.

A few favorite lines from Notes of a Native Son:

Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law. It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace, but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep own heart free of hatred and despair.

And again, speaking to white supremacy:

no black man can hope ever to be entirely liberated from internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of white men. What is crucial here is that, since white men represent in the black man’s word so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naivete, or else to make is cost him dear….the American vision of the world – which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces of human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white – owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us – very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will – that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate; and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

From Nobody Knows My Name:

The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here….In a society much given to smashing taboos without thereby managing to be liberated from them, it will be no easy matter.

Also from that same collection:

Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury. They seem to feel that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War, and won, they have earned the right merely to deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening in Little Rock or Birmingham is worse…This perpetual justification empties the heart of all human feeling. The emptier our hearts become, the greater will be our crimes…the South is not merely an embarrassingly backward region, but a part of this country, and what happens there concerns every one of us….The country will not change until it re-examines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom. In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride, and folly, and the world shrinks around us. It is a terrible, and inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.

In speaking of the American illusion (one might say delusion) that everyone around the world respects and envies us as the richest, most powerful country in the world, Baldwin writes:

I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all we have left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.

Writing on desegregation, Baldwin notes:

Any real change involves the breakup of the world as one has known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free – he has set himself free – for higher dreams, for greater privileges….There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.

Baldwin famously disdained what he called “unquestioning patriotism,” which is the source of perhaps his most well-known quote:

I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

And perhaps one of his most hopeful quotes, speaking to the white mobs that rioted against integration in the South:

these mobs fill, so to speak, a moral vacuum…the people who form these mobs would be very happy to be released from their pain, and their ignorance, if someone arrived to show them the way. I would be inclined to agree with this, simply from what we know of human nature. It is not my impression that people wish to become worse; they really wish to become better but very often do not know how.

Visionary, intellectual, patriot, critic, hero, archetype. Thank you for your many gifts to us in your too-short 63 years on this earth.

I think we have to look grim facts in the face because if we don’t, we can never hope to change them….The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.

I could continue to go on, but I want to close with:

A country is only as good – I don’t care now about the Constitution and the laws, at the moment let us leave those things aside – a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me. I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that is it entirely out of our hands. We make the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.

Image found here.

Like what you read? Follow me on Twitter @MrsWhatsit1.

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