“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.“-James Baldwin
It feels to me like there is so much swirling around in the ether right now.
Do you feel it, too?
So many emotions, from lucid anger and trepidatious fear, to reluctant hope and cautious relief.
So much energy, from the people demonstrating in the streets and those virtually shouting for freedom, to the resumed sound of cars commuting on highways and businesses fighting for a share of the dwindling post-quarantine economy.
And coursing through it all? Bold-faced uncertainty, refusing to step aside and give us any assurance that the things we all crave are coming: a more just world where amends have been made, where future generations do not believe a person is better or worse because of the color of their skin, and where no one lives in fear of hugging another person because of a socially-transmitted virus.
Whether it’s the continued uncertainty surrounding COVID and the anticipated second wave, or the uncertainly about what actual changes will come as a result of the loudest cries for racial equality in history, one critical component threatens any potential progress on both fronts.
Have you ever started a project around your home or apartment only to lose interest and abandon it halfway through? Maybe you still have supplies from those projects sitting in your closet or garage, or even materials you bought for a project that you never actually started?
I don’t know about you, but we have a small collection of those around our house and in our shed. I even recently came across a cross stitch kit in my nightstand that I bought in 2014 thinking it could keep me occupied while my husband was on a work trip. It sat completely dormant until a few weeks into the quarantine, but after dedicating a few nights to the craft, it’s now forgotten again in another drawer with only a few dozen new red stitches to show for it.
Although I can venture a guess as to why I lost my interest in cross stitching (it embarrassingly took too much effort to both stitch and watch Netflix at the same time…), I’m not sure why it seems so challenging to maintain longterm focus on the things we know are critically important. Even with things that directly affect our mortality–seemingly the most crucial of motivators–we still struggle to consistently press on after an initial inciting emotion fades.
So, then, how can we vanquish COVID when victory will require strict adherence to practices that go against our very nature as humans, especially when it’s for an indefinite period of time?
And how can we transform our society into one that truly values Black lives and those of every marginalized group, especially when we know it will require the sustained hyper-focus necessary to radically reform a deeply-entrenched and poisonous system?
And how can we tackle these issues, and whatever else 2020 has in store for us (::knock on wood::), when we know that our own weariness is threatening to slow the wheels of change and eradication?
I’m certainly not enlightened enough to answer these questions; however, I’m hopeful that our purpose-driven life for this week, one of someone who was incredibly wise, brave, and resilient, can provide us with insights into how to remain vigilant and power through the ennui.
This week, we will examine the life of novelist, playwright, poet, and reluctant activist, James Baldwin. Baldwin was one of the most influential American writers of this century whose work inspired countless other talented writers, including Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, as well as singers, actors, politicians, and thought leaders. And as a Black gay man, Baldwin’s legacy serves as an inspiration to more than one marginalized community.
What can the purpose-driven life of James Baldwin teach us about maintaining momentum when fighting for a cause, fighting a virus, or fighting to find our purpose? Let’s find out.
James Arthur Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York City. By the time he was born, Baldwin’s mother had already left his biological father. She married a Baptist preacher when Baldwin was very young, and together they had eight children.
Baldwin’s childhood was challenging, as his stepfather (whom he called his “father” in interviews and essays) treated him much worse than his siblings. Baldwin was expected to care for his younger brothers and sisters, but when he wasn’t watching them, he would escape his father’s harsh treatment by spending time alone at the library.
In spite of the substandard education available to him in Harlem, Baldwin knew early on that he was intellectually gifted. As he said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” Baldwin’s teachers also noticed his exceptional abilities when he was young, selecting a play he wrote at 10 years old to be performed by his classmates.
By the time Baldwin was in his early teens, his passion for writing had taken hold. He was enamored with the work of Harlem Renaissance writers, like the poet Countee Cullen. With encouragement from his teachers, Baldwin became editor of the school newspaper and published his first article at the age of 13. However, his father was unsupportive of his academic pursuits, and he urged Baldwin to follow in his footsteps by joining the ministry.
Baldwin acquiesced to his father’s expectations and became a junior minster when he was 14 years old. Even though writing was clearly his greatest gift, the power of his father’s influence and the years spent fighting to be loved by him took a toll on Baldwin’s momentum and self-belief. As a result, he began preaching in the Pentecostal church, eventually drawing crowds that were larger than those coming to see his father.
By age 17, however, Baldwin gained the perspective and strength needed to defy his father’s wishes and fight to pursue his true passion for writing. He left the ministry and focused his attention on creating art. During a chance encounter in Greenwich Village, Baldwin met Beauford Delaney, a modern painter. Through Delaney’s mentorship, Baldwin discovered it was possible to be a Black artist, and he began to envision a future for himself as a professional writer.
“[Delaney was] the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion…I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken, but I never saw him bow.“-Baldwin
After graduating high school, Baldwin took odd jobs while he wrote essays, stories, and book reviews. When he was 23 years old, his first professional piece was published in The Nation. Around that time, Baldwin had become increasingly weary of the incessant discrimination he faced as a Black man in segregated America. Seeking a more liberated society where he could be perceived and perceive himself as more than just a “Black writer,” Baldwin left the United States and moved to Paris at the age of 24.
Once in Paris, Baldwin quickly became enmeshed in the Left Bank community of writers, poets, painters, and intellectuals. Having realized in his teens that he was attracted to other men, Baldwin also found in Paris a society that was much more accepting of gay relationships. Soon after he moved to Paris, Baldwin met and fell in love with a young Swiss man named Lucien Happersberger.
“Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.“-Baldwin
Between Paris and Happersberger’s chalet in Switzerland, Baldwin wrote his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, a semi-biographical story published in 1953. Two years later, he released Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays whose title was inspired by Richard Wright’s novel. Then, in 1956 he published his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, whose first person narrator is a gay man living in Paris. Just as Baldwin resisted attempts to be defined by his race, he also refused to acknowledge the seemingly autobiographical nature of his second novel to avoid labels based on his sexual preference.
Baldwin had been watching the American Civil Rights Movement from across the pond, but he was so struck by the image of a young Black girl bravely walking into a desegregated school that he decided to return to the United States to join the cause. In 1957, he traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina and Montgomery, Alabama to interview locals and write about the racially-charged experiences in the South post Brown v. Board of Education (the Supreme Court ruling the declared segregation of schools unconstitutional). During his travels, Baldwin met Martin Luther King, Jr. and wrote pieces that were published in Harper’s, Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker.
In 1963, Baldwin embarked on a lecture tour of the South in which he advocated for activism that fell between the nonviolent methodologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the more “radical” tactics promoted by Malcolm X. Around that time, Baldwin also gained national widespread acclaim for his writing, as Time magazine featured him on its cover that year and opined, “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”
Baldwin also figured prominently in the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. However, many of those involved with the Civil Rights Movement were not supportive of gay rights, and though Baldwin was neither openly out nor entirely closeted, his involvement was controversial for King. Ultimately, King distanced himself from Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, another gay man who was instrumental in organizing the March, due to the pressure from other activists.
Undeterred, Baldwin continued promoting equality and reporting on the injustices inflicted on Black Americans. He called for national civil disobedience when an historically Black church was bombed in Birmingham shortly after the March on Washington, and also he traveled to Selma, Alabama to witness the threat tactics used by police to deter black voters and join the famed fifty-mile march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery.
In spite of his role as a leader and influencer in the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin again rejected attempts to label him as a “civil rights activist.” Like Malcolm X, Baldwin believed that civil rights are by definition owed to any person considered a citizen. He also didn’t consider it a “revolution” because its goal was a “radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life … not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country.”
By 1970, Baldwin was ready to leave America once again, and so he bought and settled into a home in the South of France. In his years there, Baldwin welcomed old friends, like Beauford Delaney and Sidney Poitier, as well as new ones, like Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles. He continued to write into the 1980s, but in 1985 Baldwin tragically died of stomach cancer at the age of 63.
James Baldwin’s purpose of using his gift for writing to change minds and advocate for civil and gay rights took decades for him to truly fulfill. In fact, you might argue that the effect Baldwin’s legacy and works have had on these causes has only continued to become more and more impactful as the years have gone by.
Baldwin could have given in to his father’s wishes and dedicated his life to religion, or he could have been deterred by the prejudices against him, or he could been satisfied with any of the categories society consistently struggled to box him in. Being a “great Black writer,” or “great gay writer” is better than not being recognized, no?
For Baldwin, the answer was always, “No.” His integrity was more important than his reception, and he fought to maintain that throughout his life.
So, what can we learn from Baldwin’s example for maintaining our momentum? For me, I think the key takeaway is to figure out what you need to continue fighting, and give yourself permission to seek that out.
Baldwin knew intuitively that he and his work would be hindered by the racism and homophobia of American society. This understanding led him to move to Paris in his early 20s and then return in his 40s to live out the remaining years of his life. Only by making the change necessary for him to create meaningful art was Baldwin truly able to pursue his purpose and make a significant difference for Black and gay Americans.
“If you’re treated a certain way, you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real, they’re real for you whether they’re real or not.“-Baldwin
Another lesson to learn from Baldwin? Integrity will always lead us on the right path. Whether it’s finding our purpose, identifying and acting against examples of White Supremacy in our own lives, or taking the precautions necessary to ensure the health and wellbeing of not just ourselves, but everyone in our communities, integrity is the guiding force that will always be right no matter how things evolve in 2020 and beyond.
“Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.“-Baldwin
While we unfortunately may not be able to move to Paris right now (or for some, want to), we can seek and make a change in our routine, setting, media consumption, etc. that will help us to breathe, gain perspective, and continue the fight with integrity.