I consider James Baldwin’s essays to form part of the firmament, as critical as the North Star, guiding how true my words sound the mettle, do more than spin, and take the written journey from idea to fire. And I am far from alone in my admiration for him. When I find myself in the company of some one who has recently read or taught Notes of a Native Son, we are bound in wonder that Baldwin could be so prophetic and so specific, at once.
Baldwin wrote from the inside out, that is, from the core of his thinking/feeling/being, in a prose so supple as to limn complexity with furious precision. When he says, he “felt […] a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut. I began to walk,” Baldwin takes the reader with him from the visceral to a dissociative experience that sculpts him, his black being-in-the-world, into frozen rage, scripted, manacled, airless, loveless, locked inside unending injustice. How terrifying, and as Baldwin observes, how commonplace for black people.
Baldwin’s thirst was to undo this trap and he used two abstract nouns “love” and “justice” as the measure of his relationships—family, friendships, literary and political—as the core from which he mined meaning below obvious meaning, with all the implications to map a way to “free.”
Cornel West, who must have drawn inspiration from Baldwin, gave us this syllogism to ponder: “Justice is what love looks like in public” meant to point with Baldwin’s unswerving sense of direction, as terms we must contend with to navigate a path to “free.” To get there, it is implied, we have to bring about a society that comes clean about its origins, its plunder and demanded sacrifice, and that gets its past (and present) right in order to live into a democracy built on equity and fairness.
In this political season, I wonder how Baldwin would use the measure of “love” and “justice?” I wonder about who has always been “unlovable,” in all political corners: the people in communities of color America exploits as labor and entertainment, “blood sacrifice” and fodder for a spurious public safety. I wonder about the “unlovable” alt-right, the people for whom American rot shows up as costume fantasy and retreating grandeur.
For artists in this time, I think Baldwin would take up the phrase “no fear;” I saw it written in Mississippi on caps and t-shirts imprinted in multiples to make it stick, spurring leaders and everyday folks to step out of comfort into truth telling. I think Baldwin would affirm the Movement for Black Lives who take up “no fear” and have added “guided by love” as the coordinates of building a movement centering black women and LGBTQ leadership for justice in the long haul.
To artists in this time, I would guess that Baldwin would underscore that there is no turning away in the current period when the “unlovable” is the consequence of our failure to directly address the business of coming clean to the beatings, physical and economic, the jails, concrete and also psychological, upon which a pax Americana has erected empire.
Despite the difficulty of facing the unlovable seamed into past and present, artistic intelligence, approach, and free play gives writers and artists indispensable tools. The works we create now are charettes for an imagined or preferred future, utopian, dystopian, figurative or concrete.
Art and writing are sites to rehearse the open predicate of choice—and the work we do now, speculative and specific, demolishes the confining brackets of a zero sum game, the presumptive culture of absolute winners and losers. There is no line of demarcation, really, that separates us from another’s pain, is a paraphrase of what Baldwin wrote and would say for us again. Love is, as he insisted, “a growing up.”
When I reread Baldwin, at his best, I am undone. And I find the edge again, where the language gives.