Here’s a recent job to commemorate the first day of Black History Month. This 13″ x 6″ portrait of James Baldwin (1924-1987) is a print of a painting by Carl Grauer. (See that original at right. The artist obviously understands the importance of frames!). The 2-1/2″ walnut frame, our profile No. 308.0, is a cove with a bead at the sight edge to harmonize in form with the fabric wrapping the famed writer. The frame also has a pale gold slip.
During the ’60’s and ’70’s, James Baldwin’s eloquent pleas to his nation and the world were at the center of public discourse on civil rights. Few spoke more forcefully—or beautifully—to the nation’s conscience as it struggled to face the legacy of racial slavery, terrorism, and abuse in America. And few writers of that era have remained as relevant, have left us such gifts as true to our time as they were to the time they were written. But that, arguably, speaks as much to our stubbornly persistent failures as it does to the power and beauty of Baldwin’s pleas to a deeply divided nation to reconstitute itself—or, rather, to constitute itself at last.
Baldwin was a critic of his country, but, as he said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” (I think he said that after self-exiling for some years in Europe. I recall reading Baldwin while in Europe myself, just after the Nixon and Vietnam years, not a little disenchanted with my country, and being hit between the eyes with a line that was something like, “When one leaves America one gives up the illusion that he hates it.”) Baldwin did not write simply as a critic or dissident, though, but as an artist who fully understood the place and role of the arts with respect to society and the human condition.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.
Baldwin’s novels were portraits of people and neighborhoods and relationships, and, like all portraits, declared, “these lives matter.” But beyond sharp observation, Baldwin used his extraordinary social imagination to provide not only a lens for readers to view other peoples’ lives, but—especially for white readers—to provide a mirror on their own lives. His mind was indeed penetrating and revealing, but also brutally honest and unsettling—especially to whites: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Beyond revealing portrayals of American lives, Baldwin understood the great purpose of the arts: to join the world—to join often cruelly separated lives—beginning with joining the observer to the observed. His pleas to us were not only that we finally and truthfully see our fellow human beings—lives previously hidden, obscured or distorted—or even that we see ourselves. They were pleas for the connection we Americans have so often, in so many ways, lacked: connection through honest truth. “Art has to be,” he wrote,
a kind of confession. I don’t mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people.
Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real. (“The Creative Process,” in The Price of the Ticket)
This is a reminder to Americans that freedom, that most sacred of all their ideals, isn’t the fragmenting individualistic thing we’ve tended to make it, but a matter of love. (As Martin Luther King, Jr, too, would remind us in the climax of his “I Have a Dream” speech.)
But Baldwin was in no way glib or sentimental about the love America needed to somehow conjure out of its hate-filled past. Even bare acceptance of one another is difficult:
I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
Few writers have so bluntly challenged white Americans to face our nasty scapegoating habits. Observing the appalling rise of white supremacy in my country in recent years, I’ve often thought to myself, These people love America—it’s other Americans they hate. And Baldwin is there in my ear to add, Or is it in fact themselves that white Americans hate?—and saying it with love before going on to remind me of my grade school experience of integration here in Berkeley:
If the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. (The Fire Next Time, 1963)
The year just past convulsed the American body to greater extent and in more ways than I experienced in all my nearly 63 years, including those of the turbulent ’60’s here in Berkeley. Strained by viral pandemic, economic collapse, and fractious politics, cities across the country exploded with cries of “Black lives matter!” It is agonizing to reflect that it was 55 years ago that James Baldwin, in a now famous debate with the conservative writer and commentator William F. Buckley, eloquently described the discovery, while growing up black in America, that his life didn’t matter to his country:
“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you… It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” —Cambridge debate with William F. Buckley, 1965
The world witnessed the real—still real—truth of those words last year when it saw video of George Floyd lying on a Minneapolis street, his neck under the knee of a cop who, hands in pockets, glancing without concern at the horrified bystanders, was the picture of indifference to the life he was snuffing out, and to Floyd’s dying plea, “I can’t breathe!” In the subsequent days, weeks and months, those words, gathering up and transformed by countless voices—none stronger than Baldwin’s—of a people’s centuries-long, common brutal experience, crescendoed and transformed into a mass cry by an entire segment of America incredulous at having still to declare that it exists.
But the cry was, this time, voiced by strikingly multiracial crowds, and contained not only outrage but also that hope evident throughout Baldwin’s work, that Americans’ ongoing war for civil rights—a war we must continue to fight—will be after all “a lover’s war”; that maybe the fire this time will forge us at last into the strong, indivisible nation we have, each and all, pledged to each other to make together.
Watch James Baldwin’s extraordinary “Pin Drop Speech” in the 1965 Cambridge debate here:
Watch the entire debate here:« Back to Blog