What I learned from James Baldwin

I was first introduced to James Baldwin in ‘Black Body’, a poignant essay written by Teja Cole in which Cole traces Baldwin’s steps while at the same time recounting parts of his life story. He reveals an almost mythical figure who would sometimes take refuge in a Swiss mountain village - a village which, until Baldwin set foot in it, had never seen a black man.

Photograph by Steve Schapiro

About this encounter with the village people, Baldwin wrote, ‘…there was a charm or genuine wonder in which there was certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder.’

And he was, but not for the reasons he mentions but for his life’s work. Baldwin was a prolific novelist, essayist, playwright and activist. His insight into the racial and social issues (and his ability to articulate them in a way that white people would be able to understand) made him a key player in the Civil Rights movement. He not only acted as a liaison between white politicians and black activists but also attended rallies and gave lectures. He was seen as an ambassador for black Americans - a role which he rejected.

Baldwin rejected all labels. He was interested in humanness and what it meant to be alive. What America was then would not allow him to be who he was and so he left for France where he spent most of his life, answering the questions that were most important to him. In France, he found the space he needed to develop his writing practice and he found acceptance.

What I love about his work is the depth and openness with which he struggles with his questions about himself and the world around him. His questions are fundamental and relatable and still relevant today. Questions of not only how we define race but also sexuality and for what reasons. Baldwin wrote that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. And to that, I add that the only way to escape history is to question it with your entire self.

Giovanni’s Room opens at a crossroad and David stands at the centre, reflecting on the choices that he’s made. Who is he in relation to all the people he has loved? Who is he in relation to himself?

The part that touched me the most was the part where he spoke about freedom being unbearable and how this leads us to make decisions that we are not ready for or don’t understand the meaning of. Using people, things, and ideas as places to moor ourselves so that we don’t have to think and be reminded of the infinite possibilities.

Nothing is more unbearable than freedom. I suppose that is why I asked her to marry me - to give myself something to be moored to. And perhaps that is why, in Spain, she decided that she wanted to marry me. — But people can’t ,unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and takes them away and the difficulty is to say Yes to life.

People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all - a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named - but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not.

I think that it is better to struggle with the questions than to accept answers that are given to us. And to remain with the questions until, as Rilke said, we live into the answers.

Useful Links

Teju Cole - Black Body is included in Known and Strange Things, a collection of essays on art, literature, photography, and politics, was published in 2016.

James Baldwin - Poetry Foundation

Steve Schapiro - Photographer - Link to his portfolio

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