The Seer: James Baldwin and the (Death) Mask in Immarginations
“Society is held together by our need; we bind it together with legend, myth, coercion, fearing that without it we will be hurled into that void, within which, like the earth before the Word was spoken, the foundations of society are hidden.”
“You know them stakes is high…”
—De La Soul
If I’da asked my black, Native-looking Gramma about someone like James Baldwin, had they both lived in this day and age, she would have sized him up as a picture, on screen. He was there, pulsing in vacuum tubes but where would she find the time with the kids and all? I would’ve had to ask her to take a moment had I known better. If we would’ve asked her what she thought, she would’ve assessed him after calling us all to “the tv” to watch him, no matter how many Black faces have passed since she proudly had her Magnavox placed kitty-corner of her bedroom to glimpse Sammy Davis on Mike Douglass, while she was in and out, cooking. She knew the stakes were high, moments of Black presence, seeing something else in ourselves. Baldwin is King-like in his quotability (here culled from various sources), a requirement for Black leaders.
There was a pride in the economy of language that could resonate with regular folks and the élite. (e.g. Nina Simone, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson). It was a sign of using education for our general good. Whether one had insider or outsider status in mainstream culture, as a black person, one was expected to distill truth to its essence, with clarity and brevity.
This home-grown approach to imagery, whether visually or in language, plays against the discordant refrains against us: Were we citizens? Were we even human? These questions were asked, continue to be asked in polite company. A screen shot, even a presence on screen was significant to those at the dawn of the television age, to us ever since. Then, to speak well, to use that language well, said something about our deserving. It was a form of black resistance, black speech action.
The embodiment of Baldwin in word and image, his “attitude,” his tone, to her, would’ve been something built upon the zeitgeist foundation she knew well. During an election year, as we are in now, she and her generation would have rallied around action, around the display of doing: The United Negro Improvement Association, Mary McLeod Bethune, all including resplendent Prince Hall Masons, did not equivocate on voting, although they may have debated everything else. They all had a presence, a presentation of the self, ourselves, parading en masse to show us in our beauty, performing determination and pride.
In the “changing same”, the only novelty between then and now is rapidity and deluge. No time to process our experiences, nor to look away. Back then, as the refrain went, the only thing you had to do, was be black, and die.
“Experience, which destroys innocence, also leads one back to it.”
Like the Daily Word she relied on, you can pick Baldwin up anywhere and find meaning, a measure, the pulse. These seeming eons later, we go from brief cameos on rabbit-eared consoles of Black stars, juxtaposed with grainy black and white images of dogs on people, dogs snarling, snouts coming to a point. Another Cartesian expression, all the way to a black president, exiting a somewhat left-of-center stage. He, elected, in the James Brownsian sense (*Two* times), soon to be covered, like many significant Black folks, with his own cloak (of invisibility). “The power of the white world is threatened whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”
We are already immersed, so deeply, in the possible coming storm, the goosebump raising, left-eye jump we take as warning in the form of someone who has the nerve to ask us “What have you got to lose?” Someone who canoodles with those who are still mad we’re considered people. What do we have to lose? asks someone old enough to remember American Apartheid. Funny you should ask: What we have gained, that grain, small as it can seem.
Seeing and not seeing is part of Americana. Fade to fading Blacks, Reds, all our blues. Only the whites of their teeth, their eyes. Always the whites are made to glow, no matter the box. Orbs peeled, under heat. We can lose our limbs under the weight hanging only by the neckbones. We stew…
“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
My grandmother, my mother and I, see and would have seen James Baldwin’s eyes as an indicator of what he meant, that he says what he means. Three generations, with varying degrees of perceptions, those born with veils and those, Grandma and James, who have now gone beyond it.
His performance, his eyes in a justifiably viral gif would have said all that needed to be said. Against the low-fi snow of aged technology, those large, protruding, heavily-lidded shade-throwers would’ve indicated more than wondrous cherubic imagining. There are hints toward unearthly seeing, of other dimensions, times potentials, in there, there. We rely on our discernments, ones from the guts, the bones, rather than simply what we’re told. “The time is now!” That refrain snatches us up by the scruff to agitate, agitate, agitate per F. Douglass. Baldwin speaking through time sees the barbarian buoyed by hate. “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
A talker, transporter, his envisioning of, a veiled, overlaid, vision, of a world swimming in o(ra)cular sockets, or to bring back the Godfather of Soul(fullness), in the pocket. Baldwin, the master, the matter, of impeccable timing, like Brown. In time, outside of time, out of time.
“The future is like heaven—everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now.”
In this election, the ethics and intellect are indicated in informal phrenology and adept face reading, epitomized by grandmothers the world over and quantified by the ancients (like the Chinese face-reading system of legend). Life shows on your face, as someone who’s grown enough to know, can perceive it. “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
To quote the former mag Spy and the great Busta Rhymes, performance of short-fingered vulgarity, is putting “your hands where my eye can see.” The low-sloping pompadour, beady-faced gaze and endless pout would not have drawn disdain by those “in the know” not because of the inherent nature of these qualities, but based on what’s behind them, what they mask. The arrogance, the close-mindedness, the countenance of meanness writ anteriorly. He doesn’t want to “get open”. This is a readable book by the mystic-literate. This is affect fashioned over decades of cruelty, like screwing over family businesses, women employees, encouraging hatemongers, bigots and the uninformed. The (“best?”) foot one puts forward reveals who the person is, where they’re headed.
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Women, always-in-danger, people of color, queer folks, folks of ranges of bodies and abilities, learn what people mean, the minute they walk in a room. It is a level of detail that Erving Goffman would aspire to, had he lived and spoke with my grandmother. He saw the broad strokes, but people like her, like Baldwin, saw detailed intimacy from years of the same affect ingrained in comportment and demeanor. Their imaginations are beyond the three dimensions and into the four and more. It is a gift that is earned, a gift that’s always needed.
Those of us on the margins have met that kind before. They had to know from the get-go. If you don’t know who you’re looking at real quick, next thing, you’d be strung up.
The world-weariness, in-your-faceness, and ambition of Clinton, the wide-eyed toughness of Sanders (despite my Grandmother’s need to critique his unkempt hair—which she would have done—Black grandma privilege and the hyperawareness of comportment). This thin line she tight-roped, and that which I have yet to master, is body language performance on display, in bold type and finely-tuned.
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.”
Baldwin’s philosophical, creative considerations emerge from the seen and the unseen, both what is deliberately hidden and what is inadvertently revealed. It is a honed knowing too: His mind, flashing through his eyes, could imagine the best and worst of the world. Had he lived (or even the nemesis that he was looking away from in that gif, William H. Buckley Jr.), I daresay someone like the GOP nominee wouldn’t have even made it out of the primaries. Baldwin’s seer-ing utterance would’ve mowed his aspirations down and left upturned, trod, and salted stubble in its wake.
At this moment, we are where we are. At this cusp of new governance, we need everything: Baldwin’s seeing, ancestral assessment, our known past, our insights into future possibilities. We live in our knowledge of what’s to come, the repercussions of what may be.
“If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”