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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.