16 April 2014

James Baldwin

This is The Year of James Baldwin. So says a "consortium of cultural organizations" in New York City. As Baldwin's name does not come up every day in my current surround, I view my stumbling upon this celebration as affirmation that I am still 'on task' in my intellectual life, still doing something right (though it is far from apparent to me most of the time).

According to Wikipedia, his complete oeuvre reads:
Together with others:
At best, I've read excerpts from The Amen Corner and Nobody Knows My Name. His name comes up again and again -- in conversation, in commemorations of one kind or another on NPR or among my poet friends. Until now, I resisted falling or following but it was not because I couldn't hear him, didn't feel something stir and moan within me, especially whenever I encountered his analysis and commentary on American culture.

It was more a case of avoiding the pain of knowing, of seeing what one can't help but see because Baldwin is nothing if not plain-spoken in his critique. It always hurt a little hearing his recorded voice on the radio, talking about the Negro experience in America. It always seemed he was telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly ... 

I am reading Go Tell It On the Mountain. A friend has given me access to her boyfriend's dormant library card and I have borrowed the title as an e-book. I did not know until minutes ago that it was his first published work and that it is semi-autobiographical (not that I didn't already suspect I was reading his life story).

I am letting him in at last. And it still hurts. It's hard not to take nearly everything he says personally, hard to maintain a strictly intellectual, subjective frame of mind when I read him. It is impossible to ignore the compromises and half-truths of my own life in the light of his precise, unflinching candor.

This morning I acknowledge that a transformation is underway. I am letting him in. The usual pain is assuaged by the signature gentleness and compassion that I perceive in Baldwin's writing, a tender sadness that carries and tempers his astute observations. I feel him grieving for America, for white people, for black people, for the intractability of the "race problem" that has defined interracial relationships here from the beginning.

His writing makes me aware that my half-truths and compromises have not brought me peace of mind but rather produced an uneasy resignation that has precluded true contentment and unbridled joie de vivre. I've been a lifelong host to squelched discontent. It likely underlies my lifelong "battle" with depression.

Baldwin left the country. Was he able to see his native land more clearly from a distance? Did exile make it easier to find his voice and the courage to speak?

Reading him now I feel ice breaking somewhere inside me...