Change the Narrative, Change Your Destiny: How James Baldwin Read His Way from Harlem to the Literary Pantheon
By Maria Popova
NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience.
When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in the summer of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), the seven and a half hours of generous genius that flowed between them covered such wide-ranging issues as race and gender, power and privilege, capitalism and democracy, and a wealth of nuanced human concerns in between.
One of the most poignant portions of the conversation looks at why real change becomes possible only when we change the cultural narrative. Baldwin recounts how, as a child, he read his way out of his own culturally-imposed narrative of possibility, which allowed him to go beyond what Kafka believed books could do for us — serve as “the axe for the frozen sea inside us” — and go further, turning books into an axe for the frozen sea between us.
I used to tell my mother, when I was little, “When I grow up I’m going to do this or do that. I’m going to be a great writer and buy you this and buy you that.” And she would say, very calmly, very dryly, “It’s more than a notion.” That kind of dry understatement which characterizes so much of black speech in America is my key to something, only I didn’t know it then.
Then I started reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, murder mysteries, The Good Earth, everything. By the time I was thirteen I had read myself out of Harlem. There were two libraries in Harlem, and by the time I was thirteen I had read every book in both libraries and I had a card downtown for Forty-Second Street… What I had to do then was bring the two things together: the possibilities the books suggested and the impossibilities of the life around me… Dickens meant a lot to me, for example, because there was a rage in Dickens which was also in me… And Uncle Tom’s Cabin meant a lot to me because there was a rage in her which was somehow in me. Something I recognized without knowing what I recognized.
Later in the conversation — which took place during the golden age of television — he quips:
I can’t bear television sets. But I can afford not to bear them because I read books.
Baldwin — who was, at the time of the conversation, based in Paris and was perhaps the world’s most successful living poet — considers how, in stretching himself to create his identity, he reached not only beyond the geographic constraints of his neighborhood and the societal constraints of his culture, but beyond the English language itself:
I was very young, and the assumptions of the people by whom I was surrounded, who now were white people, were so fatally different that I was really in trouble. I was in danger of thinking myself out of existence, because … an unknown helpless black boy, wandering around the way I did and thinking the way I thought, was obviously a dangerous kind of freak. Obviously, you say what you think, and there is no way to hide what you think. People look at you with great wonder and great hostility, and I got scared because I could see that I wouldn’t be able to function in this world or even in this language, and I went away.
But I began to think in French. I began to understand the English language better than I ever had before; I began to understand the English language which I came out of, the language that produced Ray Charles or Bessie Smith or which produced all the poets who produced me. A kind of reconciliation began which could not have happened if I had not stepped out of the English language.
There is a sense in which I could say I never have left Harlem. But there is another sense in which I certainly never can go back there, if only because the Harlem in which I was born exists no longer. And though that rupture has something to do with race, it also has something to do with the nature or quality or the specialness — I don’t know what the word is — of human experience.
Further into the conversation, Baldwin revisits this particular paradox of the human experience — the great challenge of rewriting the system’s limiting narratives of possibility and the great duty, if we are to escape their traps, of setting out to rewrite them however challenging the task:
If you’re born into that situation, the nature of the trap is with your not even knowing it, acquiescing. You’ve been taught that you’re inferior so you act as though you’re inferior. And on the level that is very difficult to get at, you really believe it. And, of course, all the things you do to prove you’re not inferior only really prove you are. They boomerang… You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.
He later adds:
Once people know what they know, they make the unconscious assumption that they were born knowing what they know, and forget that they had to learn everything they know.
We are always, Baldwin seems to remind us, the product of what we learn — but we can choose whether to learn it by passive osmosis of the system’s values or by active self-invention. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” he resonates with Mead in another part of the conversation. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” To learn by such passive osmosis is to acquiesce to the world’s terms of how we are to be treated. To read is to be exposed to other possible versions of ourselves, beyond those bequeathed to us by our direct cultural ancestors and instead borrowed, at will, from what Mead called our “mythical ancestors”. In championing this notion, Baldwin is echoing Seneca — one of his own mythical ancestors, perhaps — who argued two thousand years earlier that reading allows us to be adopted into the “households of the noblest intellects” and raised by parents of our own choosing, becoming persons of our own creation.
Pair this particular passage from the altogether culturally requisite A Rap on Race with C.S. Lewis on why we read, Rebecca Solnit on what books do for the human soul, and Mary Ruefle on why “someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world.”
Published April 10, 2015