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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.

BP

Erich Fromm on Human Nature, the Common Laziness of Optimism and Pessimism, and Why We Need Rational Faith in the Human Spirit

“Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair… To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible.”

Erich Fromm on Human Nature, the Common Laziness of Optimism and Pessimism, and Why We Need Rational Faith in the Human Spirit

“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her magnificent manifesto for hope in times of despair. “And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope.”

Decades earlier, the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) — a man of abiding wisdom on the art of loving and the art of living — examined the cowardice of despairing pessimism and the much needed courage of rational optimism in his 1972 treatise The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (public library).

Erich Fromm

In considering how we ought to view human nature, Fromm distinguishes between rational faith in the human spirit, which is “based on the clear awareness of all relevant data,” and irrational faith, “an illusion based on our desires.” He writes:

Optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair. If one truly responds to man and his future, i.e., concernedly and “responsibly,” one can respond only by faith or by despair. Rational faith as well as rational despair are based on the most thorough, critical knowledge of all the factors that are relevant for the survival of man. The basis of rational faith in man is the presence of a real possibility for his salvation: the basis for rational despair would be the knowledge that no such possibility can be seen.

Millennia after Plato’s insight into negotiating our parallel capacities for good and evil, Fromm adds:

The statement, “Human nature is evil,” is not a bit more realistic than the statement, “Human nature is good.” But the first statement is much easier to make: anyone who wants to prove man’s evilness finds followers most readily, for he offers everybody an alibi for his own sins — and seemingly risks nothing. Yet the spreading of irrational despair is in itself destructive, as all untruth is; it discourages and confuses. Preaching irrational faith or announcing false Messiahs is hardly less destructive — it seduces and then paralyzes.

This, indeed, is why cynicism is so seductive in our present culture — a particularly pernicious form of defeatist resignation masquerading as empowered critical thinking. Fromm captures this brilliantly:

The attitude of the majority is neither that of faith nor that of despair, but, unfortunately, that of complete indifference to the future of man. With those who are not entirely indifferent, the attitude is that of “optimism” or of “pessimism.” The optimists are the believers in the dogma of the continuous march of “progress.” They are accustomed to identifying human achievement with technical achievement, human freedom with freedom from direct coercion and the consumer’s freedom to choose between many allegedly different commodities. The dignity, cooperativeness, kindness of the primitive do not impress them; technical achievement, wealth, toughness do…

The optimists live well enough, at least for the moment, and they can afford to be “optimists.” Or at least that is what they think because they are so alienated that even the threat to the future of their grandchildren does not genuinely affect them. The “pessimists” are really not very different from the optimists. They live just as comfortably and are just as little engaged. The fate of humanity is as little their concern as it is the optimists’. They do not feel despair; if they did, they would not, and could not, live as contentedly as they do. And while their pessimism functions largely to protect the pessimists from any inner demand to do something, by projecting the idea that nothing can be done, the optimists defend them selves against the same inner demand by persuading them selves that everything is moving in the right direction anyway, so nothing needs to be done.

bridge_fog_new

What we need in order to transcend this dual hapless helplessness, Fromm argues, is “rational faith in man’s capacity to extricate himself from what seems the fatal web of circumstances that he has created” — something at the center of his philosophy of humanist radicalism:

Humanist radicalism … seeks to liberate man from the chains of illusions; it postulates that fundamental changes are necessary, not only in our economic and political structure but also in our values, in our concept of man’s aims, and in our personal conduct.

To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities.

In a sentiment evocative of Albert Camus’s timeless wisdom on happiness, despair, and the love of life, Fromm adds:

The situation of mankind today is too serious to permit us to listen to the demagogues — least of all demagogues who are attracted to destruction — or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with — the love of life.

Complement The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a rousing read in its entirety, with some thoughts on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves and a beautiful reflection on how to anchor our humanity in turbulent times, then revisit Fromm on having vs. being and what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving.

BP

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

“A good writer always works at the impossible.”

John Steinbeck on Writing, the Crucible of Creativity, and the Mobilizing Power of the Impossible

An advocate for the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Virginia Woolf saw this informal practice as training ground on which one can “loosen the ligaments” for formal writing. But hardly anyone has put private writing to more fruitful use as a creative and psychological sandbox for public-facing art than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).

Thirteen years after he completed the remarkable and psychologically revelatory journal he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck enlisted another private medium of informal writing in perfecting his public prose. In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily “letter” to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici.

An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.

On the pages of the blue-lined notebook, Steinbeck worked out and fine-tuned his ideas about writing, the creative process, family life, the purpose of art, and his most elemental convictions. These letters were eventually published as Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (public library) — an extraordinary document illuminating not only the mental, spiritual, and creative interiority of one of the most formidable artists who ever lived, but the very nature of creativity itself.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the letters is the sincerity with which they reveal the inseparability of an artist’s selfhood and personal life, with all of its elations and anguishes, from his art. (Patti Smith addressed this indivisibility in her moving letter to Robert Mapplethorpe.) Particularly touching is Steinbeck’s love for his two young sons, four and a half and six and a half at the time, to whom he addressed the novel.

In his very first letter to Covici, with undertones evocative of artist Anne Truitt’s reflections on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, Steinbeck writes:

I am choosing to write this book to my sons. They are little boys now and they will never know what they came from through me, unless I tell them. It is not written for them to read now but when they are grown and the pains and joys have tousled them a little. And if the book is addressed to them, it is for a good reason. I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, Steinbeck adds:

One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous group…

John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John. Paris, 1954. Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.
John Steinbeck with his sons, Thom and John, in Paris, 1954. (Photograph courtesy of The Bancroft Library at University of California, Berkeley.)

But what makes the novel so abidingly powerful is that in speaking to his children, Steinbeck speaks to the most innocent parts of all of us — something he captures in articulating why his boys are the perfect objects of his artistic intent:

They have no background in the world of literature, they don’t know the great stories of the world as we do. And so I will tell them one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest story of all — the story of good and evil, of strength and weakness, of love and hate, of beauty and ugliness. I shall try to demonstrate to them how these doubles are inseparable — how neither can exist without the other and how out of their groupings creativeness is born.

Among these inseparable doubles are also the batteries of knowing and not-knowing, of the possible and the impossible. In an exquisite passage that captures the heart of why artists make art, Steinbeck adds:

I shall tell them this story against the background of the county I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers. And this my boys will not know for a long time nor can they be told. A great many never come to know that there are other rivers. Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place — not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through — not ever much. And if he is a writer wise enough to know it can’t be done, then he is not a writer at all. A good writer always works at the impossible. There is another kind who pulls in his horizons, drops his mind as one lowers rifle sights. And giving up the impossible he gives up writing.

Journal of a Novel is a revelatory read in its totality, brimming with Steinbeck’s earnest intensity and beautifully articulated insight into the machinery and mystique of creativity. Complement this particular portion with Annie Dillard on the animating force of great art and Henry James on its ultimate purpose in human life, then revisit Steinbeck on creative integrity, discipline and self-doubt, the difficult art of the friend breakup, and his perennially wonderful advice on falling in love, penned in a letter to one of his sons.

BP

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