As the likes of Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and Robert Copeland continue to be strung across national news, it is perhaps more fitting than ever that we turn to someone who, throughout their entire personal and writing life, has always demanded that we look more closely for the root of problems.
James Baldwin is undeniably a champion of human rights, as is constantly made evident through his powerful writings and examinations of American culture in particular. Beyond this, Baldwin is one of the most honest, touching, and inspiring authors that we may ever have the pleasure of encountering. In a world where adults charade as children with ultimatums, tantrums, and altogether obtuse perspectives, we must ensure that we do not lose sight of James Baldwin. Jamaica Kincaid was said in a conversation with NY Live Arts' Lawrence Weschler and Rich Blint that "every African-American household ought to have a complete collection of James Baldwin's work." Blint accurately took this a step further, saying, "No, every American should have something by Baldwin in their household."
Fittingly, this year marks the 90th anniversary of James Baldwin's birth, and many New York communities in particular have taken this opportunity to bring the Harlem-born author back into schools, such as Columbia. Baldwin's most widely read and discussed works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni's Room, which deal with a number of concepts, primarily race, but also sexuality, identity and orientation. Yes, other authors have taken on these crucial topics, but it is challenging to name a writer who has done so in the way that Baldwin has. What is it, exactly, that makes Baldwin so important, and ever-relevant to who we are as a nation especially?
For one, Baldwin decidedly ventured into territories that others would not -- simply could not -- travel towards. In a recent New York Times article, Felicia Lee writes:
Long before it was fashionable to argue that race was a social construct, Baldwin famously said, 'insofar as you think you're white, you're irrelevant,' during a 1979 speech in Berkeley, California, a statement he repeated in his writing and public appearances. Racism was not a stain on American exceptionalism, Baldwin argues, but a deliberate feature of a country that he said routinely terrorized black people.
I have to wonder, if Baldwin were here with us today, what would he say about Sterling, or Bundy? Surely, in the cool way that only Baldwin can emulate, he would remind us all to look a little deeper at the problem. Indeed, we have come far, but we would be wise to remind ourselves that we have not crossed the finish line. As Baldwin once stated in a famous debate against William F. Buckley Jr.:
Until the moment comes when we the American people are able to accept the fact that I have to accept: ...that I am not a Ward of America. I am not an object of Missionary Charity. I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American Dream -- because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens, it's a very grave moment for the West.
Though Baldwin was rightfully a great critic of the American construct of racism, we should understand that he also cared for his country deeply, a fact that he has reminded us of in many addresses throughout his life. The sharpest criticisms often come from a place of deep concern, which inevitably stems from a place of love -- and love is surely a state of being that Baldwin believed in.
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace -- not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
I first met James Baldwin when I was a junior in college, while studying critical theory. Over the course of one semester, my classmates -- a close-knit group of about 18 students -- had uncomfortably navigated the territories of what it means to be human, female, male, American, white, black -- and what it does not mean. The more we progressed through the material, the more we felt lost, but also more alive, however cliche this may sound. As we tried to make sense of our realities, which had been torn down in so many ways, I recall turning to Baldwin for comfort. My favorite quote of Baldwin's -- of so many wonderful quotes -- remains: "Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety." As we try to understand the complicated realities that now exist around us, the messages that we receive daily about who we are, who we are not, who others are, and who they are not -- I hope that we can remember this sentiment. For real progress to take hold, we will have to face the end of safety. It will not be comfortable.