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Stranger in the Village: James Baldwin’s Prophetic Insight into Race and Reality, with a Shimmering Introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote as he contemplated freedom and how we imprison ourselves in 1960. Twenty-six years later, in the last spring of his life, Baldwin — by then one of the world’s most formidable forces of cultural transfiguration — visited the Library of Congress on the invitation of Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks — the trailblazing poet who had become the first black writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize thirty-six years earlier — had chosen Baldwin for the event concluding her appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States. Nearly eighty at the time, she would far outlive him and would come to recognize, in the discomfiting hindsight of history, his profound and prophetic insight into the frayed fabric of his society, as well as his enduring wisdom on what it would take to reweave it.

The event, a recording of which is preserved in the Library of Congress archives, would be one of Baldwin’s last major public appearances. Brooks introduces him with these shimmering words:

You know the phrase larger than life. If that phrase is valid at all, it likes James Baldwin. This man has dared to confront and examine himself, ourselves, and the enigmas between. Many have been called prophets, but here is a bona fide prophet. Long ago, he guaranteed “the fire next time” — no more water, but fire next time. Virtually the following day, we, smelling smoke, looked up and found ourselves surrounded by leering, singing fire. I wonder how many others have regarded this connection. And, no, James Baldwin did not start the fire — he foretold its coming. He was a pre-reporter — he was a prophet.

His friends enjoy calling him Jimmy, and that is easy to understand — the man is love personified. He has a sweet, soft, lay, loving, enduring smile. [Baldwin smiles, audience laughs]. He has a voice that can range from eerie effortless menace — menace educational and creative — to this low, cradling, insinuating, and involving love. This love is at once both father and son to a massive concern — a concern for his own people, surely, but for the cleansing, the extension of all the world’s categories. No less, surely, since he knows, surely, that the fortunes of these over here affect inevitably those over there.

Essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, new French Legion of Honor medalist, human being being human: James Baldwin.

Baldwin proceeds to read from his work, beginning with the ending of an essay he had written more than three decades earlier, during his short stay in the small Swiss village of Leukerbad at the outset of his life in Europe, titled “Stranger in the Village” and later published in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library). Composed in 1953 — the same cultural moment in which his compatriot and fellow prophet Rachel Carson was bringing her own prescience to the other great problem of their time, which also remains unsolved in ours — the essay stuns with its timeliness today and stands testament to Baldwin’s singular gift as a prophet and seer into past, present, and future.

Baldwin writes:

The cathedral at Chartres… says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that, this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them. Perhaps they are struck by the power of the spires, the glory of the windows; but they have known God, after all, longer than I have known him, and in a different way, and I am terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles jutting out of the stone and seeming to say that God and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that the villagers think of the devil when they face a cathedral because they have never been identified with the devil. But I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else, gives me in the West before I can hope to change the myth.

In a passage of bone-chilling prescience, affirming Zadie Smith’s insistence that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Baldwin adds:

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world — which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

Illustration by Yoran Cazac from Little Man, Little Man — Baldwin’s only children’s book

In a sentiment that reverberates with astonishing relevance three generations later, Baldwin — America’s poet laureate of “the doom and glory of knowing who you are” — concludes by framing the difficult reality we must face rather than flee from in order to nurture a nobler, healthier, and more just society:

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

The Price of the Ticket — which also gave us Baldwin on the creative process, our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, and his definition of love — remains an indispensable and indeed prophetic read. Complement it with Baldwin on resisting the mindless of majority, how he learned to truly see, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, his advice on writing, his historic conversation with Margaret Mead about forgiveness and responsibility, and his only children’s book, then revisit Gwendolyn Brooks on vulnerability as strength and her advice to writers.

BP

Little Man, Little Man: James Baldwin’s Only Children’s Book, Celebrating the Art of Seeing and Black Children’s Self-Esteem

“A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience.”

Little Man, Little Man: James Baldwin’s Only Children’s Book, Celebrating the Art of Seeing and Black Children’s Self-Esteem

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his superbly insightful essay on Shakespeare, language as a tool of love, and the writer’s responsibility in a divided society. But while “the people” of sixteenth-century Europe were very different from the people of twentieth-century America, as were their lives, cultural representations of “the people” of our time and place — of what Whitman celebrated as “a great, aggregated, real PEOPLE, worthy the name, and made of develop’d heroic individuals” — have remained woefully stagnant and unreflective of diversity in the centuries since Shakespeare.

Fifteen years after Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize — released her trailblazing poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood, Baldwin set out to broaden the landscape of representation in children’s literature by composing a short, playful yet poignant story inspired by his own nephew — Tejan Kafera-Smart, or TJ. Originally published in 1976, with a jacket that billed it as “a child’s story for adults,” Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (public library) is Baldwin’s addition to the compact canon of sole children’s books composed by literary icons for their own kin, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, and William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

The book is less a story than a series of vignettes depicting African American life and childhood on a particular block on New York City’s Upper West Side — one that looks “a little like the street in the movies or the TV when the cop cars come from that end of the street and then they come from the other end of the street.” Baldwin, who considered the book a “celebration of the self-esteem of black children,” began working on it shortly after his historic conversation about race with anthropologist Margaret Mead and set out to find the right illustrator for it.

He chose Yoran Cazac, a white French artist he had met more than a decade earlier through a mutual friend — the African American painter Beauford Delaney, who had mentored the young Baldwin and had taught him what it really means to see. When Delaney was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric asylum outside of Paris, Baldwin and Cazac rekindled their friendship in this hour of devastation and sorrow, and soon began collaborating on bringing Little Man, Little Man to life.

Cazac would complete the art — pencil and watercolor, vibrant and alive, evocative of children’s jubilant and free drawings — without having ever been to Harlem. Instead, Baldwin transported the artist by giving him books on black life, telling him stories about his time in New York, and sharing photographs of his own family there, including his nephew and niece, after whom the characters in the book were modeled. Cazac was determined to “imagine the unimaginable” through these telegraphic descriptions that became a form of artistic telepathy.

The story is written in the authentic colloquial language — children’s language, African American language — of its time and place. It is a creative choice that embodies poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion of “the self in language” and evokes a sentiment from the stunning speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered when she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

In the introduction to the 2018 edition of Little Man, Little Man, scholars Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody quote from Baldwin’s essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?”:

It is not the black child’s language that is despised. It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows he can never become white. Black people have lost too many children that way.

We meet TJ, just shy of five; his older, bigger friend WT; and Blinky — the bespectacled tomboy who lives with her aunt because “her Mama went away with somebody.” Blinky’s eyeglasses fascinate TJ — he knows that without them, she can barely see, but when he puts them on himself, the world becomes a blur. Even in this subtlest of story-props, Baldwin — who championed the empathic rewards of reading — plants an invitation to empathy rooted in the vital act of taking another’s perspective:

If he can’t see out them, how she going to see out them?

The kids have a way of seeing through the veneers which the adults around them wear to get by in the world. There is Mr. Man, the janitor living in the basement of the brownstone, who is always playing his record player and hardly ever smiles. Behind the frowning life-battered facade, TJ can see a kindly, warmhearted man:

Here he come now, Mr Man, huffing and puffing with them garbage cans, setting them on the side-walk. He try to act like he don’t see TJ. He always try to act like he mean. He ain’t mean, but he getting pretty old, TJ Mama say he got to be about thirty-seven… He don’t hardly never grin, except at TJ and sometime he act like he don’t see him. But TJ know he see him, all the time, even when he look like he ain’t looking, and he even grin at WT and Blinky, too, when he act like he see them. He a real nice man. Sometime he take them down the basement where the furnace is and he tell them stories and he give them ginger snaps and the furnace keep huffing and puffing just like Mr Man with the garbage cans and it get real red hot and Mr Man grin with all them teeth and it real nice then, he a real, real real nice man.

But, in consonance with Neil Gaiman’s insistence that children must not be shielded from dark themes, Baldwin doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of life for the community he depicts in this fictional story. This is a neighborhood strewn with churches and liquor stores, with motherless and fatherless children, where robberies and police chases are a frequent sighting. We gather, though the child reader might not, that Miss Lee — the stunning woman with whom Mr. Man lives and on whom both TJ and WD have a crush — is troubled by depression and addiction:

Sometimes Miss Lee look sad and she walk like she don’t know where she going. But she walk straight. She don’t stagger and stumble. Her eyes is red sometime and she smell strong, like smoke, and sweet, like she been eating peppermint candy, and sometime she smell like licorice. But she always walk straight.

But there is also joy in the neighborhood. The kids pass their time sitting on stoops, playing basketball, skipping rope, and amusing one another with their “African strut.” There are beach trips and delicious Sunday mornings full of laughter and love.

“I want you to be proud of your people,” TJ’s Daddy always say. TJ proud of his people, just like he proud of his Daddy. His Daddy one of them people: they boss people.

Baldwin, who read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon, celebrates the importance of reading coupled with critical thinking in moving through the world with agency:

TJ’s father read Muhammad Speaks sometime, but then he say, “Don’t believe everything you read. You got to think about what you read.” His Mama say, “But read everything, son, everything you can get your hands on. It all come in handy one day.”

At the heart of the story is a meditation on color — on being black, on the many shades of beauty embedded therein. Baldwin’s description of the different characters’ skin could belong in the pioneering nineteenth-century nomenclature of colors that inspired Darwin: WT is “the color of tea after you put in the milk,” Mr. Man is “the color of chocolate cake without no icing on it,” Miss Lee is “a color like honey and water-melon,” TJ’s mom — “the most beautiful woman in the whole world” — has “skin the color of peaches and brown sugar” and a crown of “coal-black hair,” and Blinky, “she a funny color”:

Her color changing all the time. She always make TJ think of the color of sun-light when your eyes closed and the sun inside your eyes. When your eyes is open, she the color of real black coffee, early in the morning.

Echoing William Blake’s exquisite observation that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Baldwin touches on this dimensionality of color in recounting the lesson in seeing Delany had taught him:

To stare at a leaf long enough, to try to apprehend the leaf, was to discover many colors in it; and though black had been described to me as the absence of light, it became very clear to me that if this were true, we would never have been able to see the colour; black.

Complement Little Man, Little Man with a lovely contemporary picture-book about how John Lewis’s childhood shaped his civil rights leadership and the darkly philosophical children’s book Toni Morrison wrote with her son, then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, resisting the mindless majority, the artist’s role in society, and “the doom and glory of knowing who you are.”

BP

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.”

James Baldwin on Resisting the Mindless Majority, Not Running from Uncomfortable Realities, and What It Really Means to Grow Up

“I can conceive of no better service,” Walt Whitman wrote, “than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.” Nearly a century later, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) — another poet laureate of the human spirit — embodied this ethos in one of his shortest, most searing, and timeliest essays.

In 1963, the children’s book author Charlotte Pomerantz edited an anthology of prominent writers’ and artists’ critiques of the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the Orwellian investigative committee largely responsible for the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Hollywood blacklist. Titled A Quarter-Century of Un-Americana, 1938– 1963: A Tragico-Comical Memorabilia of HUAC, it featured writing and art by such titans of creative culture as Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell, and Ben Shahn. Baldwin’s contribution was later included in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (public library), which also gave us his abiding insight into the redemptive power of language and the artist’s role in society.

James Baldwin

Reflecting on how such metastases of power imperil the moral climate of a society and corrupt the very foundation of democracy, Baldwin writes:

We are living through the most crucial moment of our history, the moment which will result in a new life for us, or a new death… a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life… This seems a grim view to take of our situation, but it is scarcely grimmer than the facts. Our honesty and our courage in facing these facts is all that can save us from disaster. And one of these facts is that there has always been a segment of American life, and a powerful segment, too, which equated virtue with mindlessness… It always reminds me of a vast and totally untrustworthy bomb shelter in which groups of frightened people endlessly convince one another of its impregnability, while the real world outside — by which, again, I mean the facts of our private and public lives — calmly and inexorably prepares their destruction.

Baldwin notes that this is the reality he himself inhabits as a black man, but it is a reality from which the vast majority of Americans spend their lives taking flight. In a sentiment of excruciating timeliness today, he writes:

People in flight never can grow up, which means they can never, really, become citizens — and we simply must not surrender this great country to those people. We must not allow their fear to control us, and, indeed, we must not allow it to control them. Rather, we should attempt to release them from their panic and their unadmitted sorrow. We ought to try, by the example of our own lives, to prove that life is love and wonder and that that nation is doomed which penalizes those of its citizens who recognize and rejoice in this fact.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

A century after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… while the strength of a majority is illusory,” Baldwin adds:

We must dare to take another view of majority rule… taking it upon ourselves to become the majority by changing the moral climate. For it is upon this majority that the life of any nation really depends.

Half a century before Toni Morrison counseled young graduates that “true adulthood… is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of,” Baldwin examines this intensely hard won glory not on the individual level but on the collective, and considers what true adulthood really means for a society:

The time has come for us to grow up. A man grows up when he looks back, realizes what has happened to him, accepts it all, and begins to change himself. He cannot grow up until he reaches this moment and passes it. We are now at the end of our extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. A very great poet, an American, Miss Marianne Moore, wrote, many years ago, the following description of our terrors: “The weak overcomes its menace. The strong overcomes itself.”

Two generations after some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders co-signed the Declaration of the Independence of the Mind with the commitment “never to serve anything but the free Truth that has no frontiers and no limits and is without prejudice against races or castes,” Baldwin concludes:

That self-knowledge which matures a nation as well as a man presupposes free men and free minds.

Complement The Cross of Redemption — a trove of cultural and spiritual insight that has only fermented with time — with Baldwin on our capacity for transformation as individuals and nations, what it means to be an artist, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his fantastic 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, then revisit Albert Camus on the artist as a voice of resistance and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

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The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

“The self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating The Price of the Ticket with pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön on self-transformation through difficult times, then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and 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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