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Chelsea Clinton Reads James Baldwin on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Role in Society

“The war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their spectacular and searingly timely 1970 conversation about race. But how are we to be clear-headed about our fellow human beings, much less capable of being one another’s hope, if have ceased seeing each other clearly, or seeing each other at all?

That tragic paradox is what Harvard art historian, writer, and former Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Lewis set out to resolve in guest editing a visionary special issue of Aperture magazine titled Vision & Justice — a photographic inquiry into the black experience in America, fusing the luminous and the lucid, celebration and lamentation, by extending a wakeful invitation to reflect on our shared pursuit of dignity and justice through the lens of visual culture. Inspired by Frederick Douglass’s influential 1864 speech “Pictures and Progress,” the issue became the first in the magazine’s 64-year history to sell out completely.

Shortly after its publication, the Ford Foundation hosted Aperture for an evening of readings and reflections curated by Lewis, starring beloved writers and artists like Carrie Mae Weems (whose recent School of Visual Arts commencement address remains one of the most moving speeches ever given), Margo Jefferson (whose memoir Negroland was among the best books of 2015), and Sarah Jones (whose extraordinary one-woman play will challenge your most elemental assumptions about the fabric of society).

Among the performances, excerpted here with exclusive permission from Aperture, was Chelsea Clinton’s beautiful reading from James Baldwin’s 1962 classic on the creative process and the artist’s responsibility to society, found in the altogether indispensable Baldwin anthology The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — please enjoy:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.


It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. I doubt that future societies will get on with him any better. The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic. And we see this panic, I think, everywhere in the world today, from the streets of New Orleans to the grisly battleground of Algeria. And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.

The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society — the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists — by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. 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. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.

I seem to be making extremely grandiloquent claims for a breed of men and women historically despised while living and acclaimed when safely dead. But, in a way, the belated honor that all societies tender their artists proven the reality of the point I am trying to make. I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own. For the truth, in spite of appearances and all our hopes, is that everything is always changing and the measure of our maturity as nations and as men is how well prepared we are to meet these changes, and further, to use them for our health.


The dangers of being an American artist are not greater than those of being an artist anywhere else in the world, but they are very particular. These dangers are produced by our history… This continent now is conquered, but our habits and our fears remain.


We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.

Watch the full event here and find reprints of Aperture‘s groundbreaking piece of media history here. Complement it with Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle for integrity, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit W.E.B. Du Bois’s spectacular letter to his teenage daughter about earning one’s privilege.

Aperture is the product of a nonprofit foundation, supported by donations and devoted to championing the power of photography as a force of art, integrity, and cultural change.


James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

“Everything can be taken from a man,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his timeless treatise on the human search for meaning, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And yet, as Adrienne Rich observed in her sublime meditation on writing, capitalism, and freedom, “in the vocabulary kidnapped from liberatory politics, no word has been so pimped as freedom.” How, then, are we to choose our own way amid a capitalist society that continually commodifies our liberty?

The peculiar manner in which personal and political freedom magnetize each other is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a piece titled “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” originally delivered as an address at the 1960 Esquire symposium on the writer’s role in society and later included in his altogether spectacular essay collection Nobody Knows My Name (public library).


Baldwin writes:

Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be. One hasn’t got to have an enormous military machine in order to be un-free when it’s simpler to be asleep, when it’s simpler to be apathetic, when it’s simpler, in fact, not to want to be free, to think that something else is more important.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s piercing words on the writer’s responsibility as a bastion of freedom, Baldwin adds:

The importance of a writer is continuous… His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.

Perhaps the most vital things for the writer to describe, Baldwin argues, are the habitual ways in which we imprison ourselves and relinquish our own freedom. Exactly half a century after Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s stirring reflections on the seeming self vs. the appearing self and shortly before Hannah Arendt formulated her enduring ideas on being vs. appearing and our impulse for self-display, Baldwin writes:

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it — and almost all of us have one way or another — this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

Two years before he came to converse with Margaret Mead about reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist world, Baldwin observes:

We have some idea about reality which is not quite true. Without having anything whatever against Cadillacs, refrigerators or all the paraphernalia of American life, I yet suspect that there is something much more important and much more real which produces the Cadillac, refrigerator, atom bomb, and what produces it, after all, is something which we don’t seem to want to look at, and that is the person.

Echoing Eleanor Roosevelt’s clarion call for our individual role in democracy and social change, Baldwin adds:

A country is only as good… only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become… I don’t believe any longer that we can afford to say that it is entirely out of our hands. We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly invigorating Nobody Knows My Name with Susan Sontag on literature and freedom and the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki on what freedom really means, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, the revelation that taught him to see, his forgotten conversations with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgiveness and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, and his advice to aspiring writers.


James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human

“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”

James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” e.e. cummings wrote in his wonderful forgotten meditation on what he called “the agony of the Artist (with capital A).” No artist — whatever the case — has captured both the agony and the rewards of that unlearning more beautifully than James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987).

In the fall of 1962, shortly after he penned his timelessly terrific essay on the creative process, Baldwin gave a talk at New York City’s Community Church, which was broadcast on WBAI on November 29 under the title “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” — one of the most insightful and rousing reflections on the creative life I’ve ever encountered, later included in the altogether magnificent Baldwin anthology The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library).


Baldwin begins by reclaiming words which are absolutely essential to our spiritual and creative survival but which have been emptied of meaning by overuse, misuse, and abuse:

I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist. There is such a thing. There is such a thing as integrity. Some people are noble. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.

Baldwin’s most electrifying point is that the integrity of the artist is an analogue for the integrity of being human — the choice of the artist is a choice we each must make, in one form or another, by virtue of being alive:

I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.


[This is] a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago…: “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.

In a sentiment the poet Mark Strand would come to echo in his beautiful assertion that the artist’s task is to bear witness to our experience, which is “part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness,” Baldwin considers the singular responsibility and burden of the artist:

The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not. You’re bearing witness helplessly to something which everybody knows and nobody wants to face.

Just as his contemporary and intellectual peer Hannah Arendt was exploring the privilege of being a pariah, Baldwin considers the essential survival mechanism by which the artist bears his or her burden of bearing witness to the unnameable:

Well, one survives that, no matter how… You survive this and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less. Then, you make — oh, fifteen years later, several thousand drinks later, two or three divorces, God knows how many broken friendships and an exile of one kind or another — some kind of breakthrough, which is your first articulation of who you are: that is to say, your first articulation of who you suspect we all are.

With this, Baldwin turns to what art does for the human spirit — although, to borrow that wonderful phrase from Saul Bellow’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “there is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness,” Baldwin argues that art’s ultimate purpose is to be an equalizer for our suffering:

When I was very young (and I am sure this is true of everybody here), I assumed that no one had ever been born who was only five feet six inches tall, or been born poor, or been born ugly, or masturbated, or done all those things which were my private property when I was fifteen. No one had ever suffered the way I suffered. Then you discover, and I discovered this through Dostoevsky, that it is common. Everybody did it. Not only did everybody do it, everybody’s doing it. And all the time. It’s a fantastic and terrifying liberation. The reason it is terrifying is because it makes you once and for all responsible to no one but yourself. Not to God the Father, not to Satan, not to anybody. Just you. If you think it’s right, then you’ve got to do it. If you think it’s wrong, then you mustn’t do it. And not only do we all know how difficult it is, given what we are, to tell the difference between right and wrong, but the whole nature of life is so terrible that somebody’s right is always somebody else’s wrong. And these are the terrible choices one has always got to make.

And yet alongside the terrible is also the terrific, if sometimes terrifying, beauty of being an artist. Echoing William Faulkner’s assertion that the artist’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Baldwin writes:

Most people live in almost total darkness… people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which — if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope — because only an artist can tell, and only artists have told since we have heard of man, what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad. Hymns don’t do this, churches really cannot do it. The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you. You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take if you are prepared to give, and giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go — everything, and this forever, forever.

Thanks to the Pacifica Radio Archives, this wonderful archival recording of Baldwin’s speech survives:

Complement The Cross of Redemption, a trove of the beloved writer’s genius from cover to cover, with Baldwin on the revelation that taught him to see, his forgotten conversations with Margaret Mead about identity, race, power, and forgiveness and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, and his advice to aspiring writers, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe on what it means to be an artist.


James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni’s Extraordinary Forgotten Conversation About the Language of Love and What It Takes to Be Truly Empowered

“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.”

James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni’s Extraordinary Forgotten Conversation About the Language of Love and What It Takes to Be Truly Empowered

In November of 1971, fifteen months after his remarkable conversation with Margaret Mead about race and identity, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with another extraordinary woman, the poet Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), for another conversation of astonishing timeliness today. The event was hosted by the PBS television series SOUL! and took place in London. Baldwin was forty-six and Giovanni only twenty-eight. For hours of absolute presence, intellectual communion, and occasional respectful rebuttal, they explored justice, freedom, morality, and what it means to be an empowered human being. The transcript was eventually published as A Dialogue (public library).

“To be honest today in this tinsel America,” the trailblazing African American journalist Ida Lewis writes in the preface, “one must be willing to put one’s soul on the line” — an observation even truer amid our present global tinsel of ready-made opinions, packaged and flung across at the other side, in a divisive culture where there is always an other side. Lewis saw the dialogue between Baldwin and Giovanni as an effort to “begin to draw upon each other’s strengths rather than wallow in each other’s weaknesses” — an effort all the more urgent today.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Baldwin begins at the beginning — his origin story as a writer, inextricably entwined with his identity as an artist in self-imposed exile. At 24, he had left New York for Paris, where he worked as a writer for almost a decade — an act of rebellion against the dominant cultural mythology, its systemic hijacking of dignity, and its obfuscation of truth:

I moved to Europe in 1948 because I was trying to become a writer and couldn’t find in my surroundings, in my country, a certain stamina, a certain corroboration that I needed. For example, no one ever told me that Alexandre Dumas was a mulatto. No one had told me that Pushkin was black. As far as I knew when I was very, very young there’d never been anything … called a black writer.

In a sentiment that calls to mind that immensely insightful Neil Gaiman line — “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” — Baldwin tells Giovanni:

BALDWIN: You know, I’d be a fool to think that there was someplace I could go where I wouldn’t carry myself with me or that there was some way I could live if I pretended I didn’t have the responsibilities which I do have. So I’m a cat trying to make it in the world because I’m condemned to live in the world.

GIOVANNI: Condemned?

BALDWIN: Condemned. Condemned. Condemned in the sense that when you’re young, and also when you’re old, you would rather have around you the expected things, to know where everything is. And it’s a little difficult, but it’s very valuable to be forced to move from one place to another and deal with another set of situations and to accept that this is going to be — in fact it is — your life. And to use it means that you, in a sense, become neither white nor black. And you learn a great deal about — you’re forced to learn a great deal about — the history out of which all these words and conceptions and flags and morals come.

With an eye to Giovanni’s generation and future generations of writers, Baldwin observes in a rare spark of optimism:

Something has moved — things move in a very strange, inexpressible way.

(Nearly half a century later, Rebecca Solnit would come to examine this often imperceptible machinery of hope-giving change.)

Baldwin, in yet another gleam of extraordinary prescience, peers at the crux of this shift:

I think that without quite realizing it and no matter what our hang-ups are as of this very moment — the hang-ups of my generation or the hang-ups of your generation, and the terrible situation in which all of us find ourselves — one thing has changed and that is the attitude that black people have toward themselves. Now within that change — I don’t want to be romantic about it — a great deal of confusion and incoherence will go on for a very long time. But that was inevitable. That moment had to come.

Speaking to the most heartbreaking and pernicious way in which all bigotry infiltrates the psyche and shrinks it from the inside, Baldwin adds:

It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.

He issues an admonition to Giovanni’s generation, which resounds with all the more relevance amid our era of branded social movements:

You have somehow to begin to break out of all of that and try to become yourself. It’s hard for anybody, but it’s very hard if you’re born black in a white society. Hard, because you’ve got to divorce yourself form the standards of that society.

The danger of your generation, if I may say so … is to substitute one romanticism for another. Because these categories — to put it simply but with a certain brutal truth — these categories are commercial categories.

Page from Freedom in Congo Square, a wonderful children's book about a forgotten part of Black history.
Page from Freedom in Congo Square, a wonderful children’s book about a forgotten part of Black history.

This commodification of lives — lives that matter — goes back a long time:

BALDWIN: It’s very hard to recognize that the standards which have almost killed you are really mercantile standards. They’re based on cotton; they’re based on oil; they’re based on peanuts; they’re based on profits.

GIOVANNI: To this day.

BALDWIN: To this hour.


It’s when you begin to realize all of that, which is not easy, that you begin to break out of the culture which has produced you and discover the culture which really produced you… What really brought you to where you are.

In a sentiment that Junot Díaz would come to echo decades later in his superb exploration of the complexities of race, Giovanni reflects on her experience with the civil rights movement:

I came up in the sixties, which is way after everything else. But we always assumed that we knew white people, that we really sort of understood them. And I found out that if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.

Baldwin harmonizes this insight into an admonition of piercing prescience:

Power without some sense of oneself is to me another kind of instability, and black people would then become exactly what white people have become.

This act of understanding — ourselves as well as one another — is invariably messy, which Giovanni captures in the perfect paradoxical observation:

I think one of the nicest things that we created as a generation was just the fact that we could say, Hey, I don’t like white people… It was the beginning, of course, of being able to like them.

Baldwin considers the necessity of learning to translate the messiness of that mutual understanding into a workable language of love:

We got this far by means which no one understands, including you and me. We’re only beginning to apprehend it, and you’re a poet precisely because you are beginning to apprehend it and put it into a form which will be useful for your kid and his kid and for the world. Because we’re not obliged to accept the world’s definitions… We have to make our own definitions and begin to rule the world that way because kids white and black cannot use what they have been given.


It’s a very mysterious endeavor, isn’t it. And the key is love.

A Dialogue is a magnificent read in its totality. (That this time-capsule of genius and prescience has fallen out of print is a tragic testament to the commercialist rift between the profit of culture and the value of culture.) Complement it with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the revolutionary power of love, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s role in society, the revelation that taught him to see, and his advice to aspiring writers, and Giovanni on what amoebae can teach us about love and her wonderful poems celebrating libraries and librarians.


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