James Baldwin...

A Man Beyond.

By Crystal Alyse.

What do you call a voice so succinct, so crisp, and so clear: a voice readily available to any audience? His blackness, his gayness, his poverty never stifled a voice so prominent, so powerful, so painful. Yet he possessed a voice so logical—raw anger and emotion and truth fused to create what audiences needed to hear in the mid-twentieth century. He spoke of ultimate truth for people of color, and for America. An America living in daily turmoil because of dichotomy: black and white; homosexual and heterosexual; religious and secular, and yet there he was, James Baldwin, Born with a voice, begat of hate and teemed with the passion of truth. The ugly truth that America needed to face in the midst of social warfare dominant at the time. His voice was and is a saving grace. He alone is one of the most sobering voices in the analysis of social struggles surrounding race, class, religion, and sexuality.

Drawing by Allison Bruns.

Born August 2nd, 1924, James Baldwin’s early years, as chronicled in his autobiographical essays Notes of a Native Son, were spent as the eldest of nine children. He would spend each moment he could from his urban man-child existence with his nose in a book. To further complicate living in the early half of the twentieth century Harlem– the wake of depression era poverty and socio-racial strife– Baldwin grew up with the difficulty of oppressive religious views from his father. Religion for Baldwin was a stifle, as he observed the contradictory realities of his hateful father: a preacher, a drunk, and an abuser. His novel Go Tell it on the Mountain rings of the immense struggles Baldwin faced as a youth and the pressure to succumb to a life in the ministry. Baldwin did indeed preach for a short time of his youth, a time he recollects as helping him as a writer. The way in which he depicts the horridly beautiful, wretchedly oppressive conditions of the black church of his era reaches out to youth raised in similar settings.

New Orleans 1963.

To further compound troubles at home, Baldwin faced the deadly spur of perception. He was, undoubtedly, a black man: a reality, which evoked hatred and anger from white bigotry at the slightest inclination of a proud or haughty spirit. And at times, this hatred arose to violence for no reason beside the need to assert false racial superiority. Even for the slightest nod of the head (or lack there of), for the wrong words spoken into the cosmos, a black man or boy could be lead into a whirlwind of violence and persecution. Baldwin’s prophetic perspectives in his letter to his namesake, his nephew James, entitled “My Dungeon Shook” serves as a survival guide in shaping the perspectives of black youth living in racial times.

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.  The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them.  And I mean that very seriously.  You must accept them and accept them with love.  For these innocent people have no other hope.  They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.  Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.  In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity.  Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shinning and all the stars aflame.  You would be frightened because it is our of the order of nature.  Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.  Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

Baldwin was born with a voice which he fought tooth and nail to express. His gift as a writer helped him to form perspective on the realities of those around him. He was able to translate the pain and turmoil in the behaviors of the racially oppressed for audiences of all skin colors in a way that created understanding, if not empathy.

Charlton Heston, James Baldwin, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte. Washington, August 28 1963.

His ability to convey and analyze even what was painful, helped him to denounce such unintelligible ills as racism, classism, and homophobia as the fault of the oppressed. He struck a balance between comprehending issues and retaining a sense of self worth in a nation that hated him.

Baldwin represented then and today how to be courageous in standing up for one’s chosen identity. For him–a same-gender loving man of color in the pseudo-religious, hyper-homophobic community he existed. He was gay at a time that was neither welcoming, nor vocal about issues of ‘queer theory’. Gay and lesbian communities idolize his strength, his boldness, his unflinching resolve in asserting his identity as gay and black in the 1950’s. Giovanni’s Room is an account of the struggle for love and identity being homosexual. He was dissecting issues of race, class, and gender at a time that was stifled with hate and bigotry.

“Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”

James Baldwin

Cicely Tyson, James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte.

James Baldwin’s ideas about justice and equality validate truth. He is a model for the clear thinking intellectual leader. He not only wrote about justice, but took action to change the conditions of his still beloved America. He spent most of his years abroad in Europe, but came back to the States when the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movements began to rock society. As a veteran, he came to shed light and give power to the younger generations, as Richard Wright had done for his years prior. In this epic Letter to Angela Davis, he breaks down the issues confronting our communities with such ground-breaking prophecy in the unfortunate reality of its constancy.

Memorial services for the four girls killed during the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, New York September 1963.

The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves. When I was little I despised myself; I did not know any better. And this meant, albeit unconsciously, or against my will, or in great pain, that I also despised my father. And my mother. And my brothers. And my sisters. Black people were killing each other every Saturday night out on Lenox Avenue, when I was growing up; and no one explained to them, or to me, that it was intended that they should; that they were penned where they were, like animals, in order that they should consider themselves no better than animals. Everything supported this sense of reality, nothing denied it: and so one was ready, when it came time to go to work, to be treated as a slave. So one was ready, when human terrors came, to bow before a white God and beg Jesus for salvation—this same white God who was unable to raise a finger to do so little as to help you pay your rent, unable to be awakened in time to help you save your child!

May Mercier, Memphis Slim, James Baldwin and Hazel Scott, supporting the “Protest march on Washington” Paris, France 1963.

Social Media figures in the intellectual platform can tread a thin line between speaking frankly, truthfully and in love from the Baldwinian approach, or mindlessly, tearing other down for the sake of ego and self-gain. The difference in Baldwin is he wrote, spoke, and organized, for the change and betterment of America. Not merely Black America, for he realized the need for harmony. Some even reference James as a pacifist; however, his friendship with Malcolm X seems to reveal otherwise. He simply encouraged love, even pity for racists. His view of black power was of self-pride that was unshakeable. The oppressed must be educated, well-versed in their oppression to understand they are not the issue. It is the racist, it is the bigot, it is the homophobe that needs help.

With a mind-set of excellence, confidence, determination, James Baldwin transferred his poverty, neglect, racial and sexual crises into fuel for a shining career as a freedom fighter and unmistakable voice. The creator of letters, stories, essays, plays, novels, scripts, commentary, speeches, poetry,
The power of Baldwin lies in his clarity—one cannot deny his purpose, nor argue with the logic of his observations. So much of what he said before, reigns true today. His death on December 1, 1987 ended an era of truth. He died on the cusp of massive social change. The element of truth, logic, justice, love, and change must be transferred to the generations today.

Nina Simone and James Baldwin . Photo : The New York Public Library

Crystal Alyse is a contributing writer for by such and such.

Full Letter to Angela Davis

My Dungeon Shook Great Analysis of Several of Baldwin’s Life Events and Works

The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Going to Meet the Man

Death to Tennis