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The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: James Baldwin on the Empathic Rewards of Reading and What It Means to Be an Artist

“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: James Baldwin on the Empathic Rewards of Reading and What It Means to Be an Artist

“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his classic 1962 essay “The Creative Process.” By then, he was already one of America’s most celebrated writers — an artist who shook up the baseboards of society by dismantling the structures of power and convention with unflinching fortitude, dignity, and integrity of conviction.

On May 17, 1963, Baldwin appeared on the cover of TIME magazine as part of a major story titled “Nation: The Root of the Negro Problem,” whose lead sentence read: “At the root of the Negro problem is the necessity of the white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to live with himself.” Although Baldwin’s civil rights advocacy was the focus, the piece shone a sidewise gleam on Baldwin the artist and raised the broader question of the writer’s role in society.

The following week, the May 24 issue of LIFE magazine — which was owned by the same company — built on that cultural momentum with an extensive profile of him by journalist Jane Howard, where under the dated title “Telling Talk from a Negro Writer” Baldwin’s timeless wisdom on life and art unfolds.

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

The lengthy profile is divided into several sections covering different aspects of his life and views. Beneath the spectacular subhead “Doom and glory of knowing who you are,” Baldwin — who had read his way from Harlem to literary celebrity — considers the unparalleled empathic gift of reading:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.

A year after he formulated his abiding ideas on the artist’s role as a disruptor of society, and more than a century after Emerson insisted that “only as far as [people] are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Baldwin considers this vital commitment to generative unsettlement as the central animating force of the creative spirit:

An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive. All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell that, I’m not trying to solve anybody’s problems, not even my own. I’m just trying to outline what the problems are.

I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.

Two decades before he shared his advice on being a writer in The Paris Review, Baldwin reflects on the inevitability of the calling:

The terrible thing about being a writer is that you don’t decide to become one, you discover that you are one.

James Baldwin writing

Echoing what E.E. Cummings wryly termed “the agony of the Artist with capital A,” Baldwin adds:

In this country … if you’re an artist, you’re guilty of a crime: not that you’re aware, which is bad enough, but that you see things other people don’t admit are there.

Complement with Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, and the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, then revisit his increasingly timely forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered.

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Go the Way Your Blood Beats: James Baldwin on Love, the Trap of Labels, and His Liberating Advice on Coming Out

“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

Go the Way Your Blood Beats: James Baldwin on Love, the Trap of Labels, and His Liberating Advice on Coming Out

“Every person of ordinary sex endowment has a capacity for diffuse ‘homosexual’ sex expression … according to the temperamental situation,” the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in a visionary 1933 letter that framed human sexuality as a matter of fluid attraction to temperaments, not a fixed attraction to genders, eight decades before the modern plight for marriage equality ushered in the universal dignity of love.

This conviction made Mead the perfect conversation partner for James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) when they sat down for their remarkable dialogue about identity four decades later. By then one of the most celebrated writers and thinkers in the world, Baldwin was among the era’s handful of openly gay public intellectuals and someone whom the legendary interviewer Studs Terkel aptly described as “one of the rare men in the world who seems to know who he is today.”

No book since Virginia Woolf’s Orlando would do more to enlist art as a force of empathic insight into same-sex desire than Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin wrote in his early thirties against enormous resistance from American publishers, at a time when the DSM — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s Bible — classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” But although Baldwin had devoted his entire life to defending human dignity in all its guises, it was only in his final years that he addressed the question of sexuality and the dark specter of homophobia directly, thanks to Village Voice journalist Richard Goldstein — one of the generation of gay people who had found in Giovanni’s Room what Goldstein considered “an early vector of self-discovery.”

Appalled that a lengthy interview with Baldwin in the New York Times Book Review had swept its subject’s sexuality under the rug, Goldstein decided to take matters into his own hands. He persuaded the beloved writer, “a man who traced much of his acuity and pain to the nexus of racism and homophobia,” to meet with him for a conversation that would become Baldwin’s most personal interview, eventually included in James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

From the very beginning of the conversation, Baldwin exerts a lively resistance to all the labels within which we confine the expansiveness of human love. He tells Goldstein:

Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality… It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is much more interesting than the question of homosexuality.

[…]

The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only a part of it. I don’t know even if it’s the most important part. But it’s indispensable.

Reflecting on what gave him the courage to release the novel in Europe despite American publishers’ vehement refusal to publish it, Baldwin considers the deepest societal seedbed of the malady of homophobia, symptoms of which we’ve begun to see anew all these decades later. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “for one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,” he tells Goldstein:

It’s very frightening. But the so-called straight person is no safer than I am really. Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility. Loving of children, raising of children. The terrors homosexuals go through in this society would not be so great if the society itself did not go through so many terrors which it doesn’t want to admit. The discovery of one’s sexual preference doesn’t have to be a trauma. It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.

Illustration from The Harvey Milk Story, a picture-book biography of the slain LGBT rights pioneer

Three decades after Hannah Arendt’s incisive treatise on how tyrannical regimes use isolation as a weapon of terror and oppression, Baldwin considers the wielding of homophobia as a cultural control mechanism by political propagandists, “a way of exerting control over the universe, by terrifying people.” The consequence, he suggests, is a fragmentation of unity on the basis of a rather arbitrary point of difference:

BALDWIN: I know a great many white people, men and women, straight and gay, whatever, who are unlike the majority of their countrymen. On what basis we could form a coalition is still an open question. The idea of basing it on sexual preference strikes me as somewhat dubious, strikes me as being less than a firm foundation. It seems to me that a coalition has to be based on the grounds of human dignity. Anyway, what connects us, speaking about the private life, is mainly unspoken.

GOLDSTEIN: I sometimes think gay people look to black people as healing them…

BALDWIN: Not only gay people.

GOLDSTEIN: …healing their alienation.

BALDWIN: That has to be done, first of all, by the person and then you will find your company.

Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, one of history’s greatest LGBT children’s books

When Goldstein remarks, three decades before this became a reality, that he imagines the election of a black president would be better for gay people, Baldwin considers the cross-pollinatory empowerment of the disenfranchised:

There is a capacity in black people for experience, simply. And that capacity makes other things possible. It dictates the depth of one’s acceptance of other people. The capacity for experience is what burns out fear. Because the homophobia we’re talking about really is a kind of fear.

Photograph by Sage Sohier from At Home with Themselves, a portrait series of gay couples in the 1980s

Affirming the notion that homosexuality is universal, Baldwin considers how language can be both the prison bars of our identity and the crowbar for breaking out of that prison:

There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But “homosexual” is not a noun. At least not in my book… Perhaps a verb. You see, I can only talk about my own life. I loved a few people and they loved me. It had nothing to do with these labels. Of course, the world has all kinds of words for us. But that’s the world’s problem.

Envisioning the future for gay people, Baldwin offers:

No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation … that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.

When Goldstein asks what advice he might have for people about to come out, Baldwin answers:

Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with literary history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters and the real-life story behind “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s responsibility to society, what it means to be truly empowered, and his increasingly timely conversation with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art.

BP

Finding Poetry in Other Lives: James Baldwin on Shakespeare, Language as a Tool of Love, and the Poet’s Responsibility to a Divided Society

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing… that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him.”

Finding Poetry in Other Lives: James Baldwin on Shakespeare, Language as a Tool of Love, and the Poet’s Responsibility to a Divided Society

“You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,” the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in contemplating power, possibility, and language as a tool of transformation. A year later, she became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day.”

But where do we turn when the day is unpraisable? When we can’t find the kinds of words that Ursula K. Le Guin celebrated as able to “transform both speaker and hearer, [to] feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it”? When we can no longer respond but merely react to the stories of others, and can no longer sing?

Leonard Cohen, the great poet of redemption, called for “a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense” in considering what is needed for healing the divides that rip democracy asunder. How to do that is what James Baldwin(August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explored a generation earlier in a spectacular and acutely timely 1964 essay titled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” found in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library) — the indispensable anthology that gave us Baldwin on the artist’s role in society.

James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)

Baldwin writes:

Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (“this England” indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all — should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak — I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.

Leaning on the scale of life-sobered hindsight with which one weighs the hubrises of one’s youth, Baldwin notes that he “was young and missed the point entirely.” He recounts the moment in which the point revealed itself to him:

I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesar’s blood. Cassius says:

Stoop then, and wash. — How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

In a passage of piercing prescience given the political situation in America today, Baldwin reflects on the revelation of this verse:

What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before — I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal — and contemporary: that “lofty scene,” in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man — to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.

[…]

Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world — once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is — some of the self-protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings
Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

With an eye to the two “mighty witnesses” of his life in language — his black ancestors, “who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place,” and Shakespeare, whom he calls “the last bawdy writer in the English language” — Baldwin considers how language can become a tool of love and a curative force for our alienation from the world’s otherness:

My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.

[…]

What I began to see — especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French — is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.

In a passage that calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s notion of “a revelation in the heart,” Baldwin adds:

My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.

With this, Baldwin returns to Shakespeare as a lens on the ultimate purpose of the poet as a vehicle for love and mutual understanding in a society woven of otherness — a purpose all the more vital and vitalizing in our troubled and troubling times:

The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love — by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer — to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not — I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people — all people! — who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.

Complement this particular portion of Baldwin’s increasingly timely and necessary The Cross of Redemption with Carl Sagan on moving beyond us vs. them and Jeanette Winterson on language and how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to her society, what it means to be truly empowered, and his forgotten, astonishingly timely conversation with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgiveness.

BP

James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art’ are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”

James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s Forgotten Conversation About Beauty, Morality, and the Political Power of Art

“Art,” Jeanette Winterson told an interviewer, “can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”

On April 9, 1980, exactly a decade after his legendary conversation with Margaret Mead, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) for a dialogue about beauty, morality, and the political duties of art and the artist — a dialogue that continues to pull us up short with its sobering wisdom. Later included in the 1989 anthology Conversations with James Baldwin (public library), this meeting of titanic minds touches on a great many of our own cultural challenges and friction points, and radiates timeless, timely insight into how we might begin to stop accepting a deeply flawed status quo at face value.

baldwinachebe

Achebe begins by defining an aesthetic as “those qualities of excellence which culture discerns from its works of art” and argues that our standards for this excellence are mutable — constantly changing, in a dynamic interaction with our social, cultural, and political needs:

Aesthetic cannot be fixed, immutable. It has to change as the occasion demands because in our understanding, art is made by man* for man, and, therefore, according to the needs of man, his qualities of excellence. What he looks for in art will also change… We are not simply receivers of aesthetics … we are makers of aesthetics.

Art, Achebe argues, arises out of its social context and must always be in dialogue with that social element:

Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.

In a sentiment evocative of what Adrienne Rich has called “the long, erotic, unended wrestling” of art and politics, Achebe considers those who chastise artists for making their art political. All art is inherently political, he notes, but what such critics consider the artist’s objectionable “politics” is simply opposition to their politics and their comfortable alignment with the status quo:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.

And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side.

Most art, Achebe argues, arises out of the status quo because — and perhaps this is a version of civilizational confirmation bias, with undertones of the backfire effect — we like to be affirmed in our values:

If you look at our aesthetics you will find … that art is in the service of man. Art was not created to dominate and destroy man. Art is made by man for his own comfort.

He turns to African art — particularly the tradition of his own heritage, the Ibo people — to illustrate the central concern of all art:

Our art is based on morality. Perhaps this sounds old-fashioned to you, but it is not to us. The earth goddess among the Ibo people is the goddess of morality. An abomination is called an abomination against the arts. So you see in our aesthetic you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.

Using, as he tended to, the word “poet” in the larger sense of any artist, any person of poetic orientation, Baldwin responds by affirming this core moral function of art and enlarges its human dimension:

When Chinua talks about aesthetic, beneath that world sleeps — think of it — the word morality. And beneath that word we are confronted with the way we treat each other. That is the key to any morality.

Invariably, this question of how we treat each other turns to race relations. But then, as if to illustrate the urgency of Baldwin’s point, the conversation is interrupted by a voice that had somehow hijacked the auditorium speaker system. The hostile male voice comes pouring out of Baldwin’s own microphone: “You gonna have to cut it out Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand for this kind of going on.” At this point, a riled but composed Baldwin speaks authoritatively into the microphone before a shocked audience:

Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are, that if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I’m telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day! It’s over!

As the audience enthusiastically applauds Baldwin, the moderator — a Sri Lankan-American professor of Ethnic Studies named Ernest Champion — rises and makes the perfect remark to restore order:

It is quite obvious that we are in the eye of the hurricane. But having this dialogue is quite important so all of us in this room will take it seriously.

With this, the anonymous antagonist vanishes just as he had appeared and the conversation continues, returning to the central duty of art. Achebe observes:

An artist is committed to art which is committed to people.

Baldwin nods in agreement:

The poet is produced by the people because the people need him.

Echoing his earlier thoughts on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the human struggle, he adds:

I know the price an artist pays… I know the price a man pays. And I am here to try to say something which perhaps only a poet can attempt to say… We are trying to make you see something. And maybe this moment we can only try to make you see it. But there ain’t no money in it.

In answering an audience question, Achebe builds on what that “something” is:

There is something we [black artists] are committed to of fundamental importance, something everybody should be committed to. We are committed to the process of changing our position in the world… We have followed your way and it seems there is a little problem at this point. And so we are offering a new aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with that… Picasso did that. In 1904 he saw that Western art had run out of breath so he went to the Congo — the despised Congo — and brought out a new art… He borrowed something which saved his art. And we are telling you what we think will save your art. We think we are right, but even if we are wrong it doesn’t matter. It couldn’t be worse than it is now.

Considering the implications of the latter statement, Baldwin makes an observation of chilling resonance today:

We are in trouble. But there are two ways to be in trouble. One of them is to know you’re in trouble. If you know you’re in trouble you may be able to figure out the road.

This country is in trouble. Everybody is in trouble — not only the people who apparently know they are in trouble, not only the people who know they are not white. The white people in this country … think they are white: because “white is a state of mind.” I’m quoting my friend Malcolm X … white is a moral choice… I can write if you can live. And you can live if I can write.

Responding to another audience question about the notion that “there can be no great art without great prejudice,” using Joseph Conrad as an example, Achebe echoes his central conviction about the role of the artist and readjusts the moral compass of art:

Great art flourishes on problems or anguish or prejudice. But the role of the writer must be very clear. The writer must not be on the side of oppression. In other words there must be no confusion. I write about prejudice; I write about wickedness; I write about murder; I write about rape: but I must not be caught on the side of murder or rape. It is as simple as that.

Quoting the Ibo proverb that “where something stands, something else will stand beside it,” Achebe argues that great art is built on pluralism and comes from the artist’s ability to embrace — to borrow Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase — her or his multitudes:

Single-mindedness … leads to totalitarianism of all kinds, to fanaticism of all kinds. And I can’t help the feeling that somehow at the base, art and fanaticism are not loggerheads.

[…]

Wherever something is, something else also is. And I think it is important that whatever the regimes are saying — that the artist keeps himself ready to enter the other plea. Perhaps it’s not tidy — perhaps we are contradicting ourselves. But one of your poets has said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well.”

Conversations with James Baldwin abounds with abiding wisdom on art and life from one of the fiercest minds of the past century and a number of his venerated peers. Complement it with Baldwin on the creative process, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, his advice to aspiring writers, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Achebe on the writer’s responsibility to the world.

* 1980 was still well within the era in which every writer, every artist, every human being was, as Ursula K. Le Guin noted in her timelessly brilliant commentary on gendered language, “a man.”

BP

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