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Art As The Practice of Freedom

A quotation from James Baldwin has been making the rounds of some friends on Facebook this week. I like to observe this phenomenon, how a snippet of text gets unmoored from its intended context and eddies through cyberspace, washing up on shores of meaning its author surely never intended. People latch onto scraps of text that express and validate their deepest truths. Provenance adds power, but also confers permission: These aren’t my words, friends, they belong to someone much bigger than I.

Plus, James Baldwin sits high in my personal pantheon of Uncolonized Minds and Avatars of True Presence. Plus (also noted by friends on Facebook), 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of his great novel, Another Country, the first adult novel I read, as I wrote back in 2005.

Here’s the quote:

"Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth."

This is beautiful, is it not? And the underlying message—that to be fully alive and growing, it is necessary to stand unmasked, embracing the unknown—this is deeply true and deeply wise. And not exactly what the quotation’s original context is all about.

The passage appears in Baldwin’s 1963 memoir/polemic, The Fire Next Time, in a pages-long section on the American denial of death and its role in racism. I suppose the kinship I feel with Baldwin, despite so many outward differences, is his persistent willingness to notice our capacity for love and renewal and exhort us to exercise it, despite abundant evidence of so many lives spent running in the opposite direction. As a man whose entire life can be seen as daring again and again to step out of the shadows into full-on light, Baldwin was well-acquainted with the lengths to which people will go to avoid being seen, which always entails suppression of the equal and opposite desire to be revealed.

Here’s the passage in context, which—whether or not you find parts of it worthy of questioning at nearly 50 years on—has the gale-force power of someone speaking his truth without reservation:

"[A] vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning it is all that awaits out there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word 'love' here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. And I submit, then, that the racial tensions that menace Americans today have little to do with real antipathy—on the contrary, indeed—and are involved only symbolically with color. These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder. The white man’s unadmitted—and apparently, to him, unspeakable—private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro. The only way he can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to become black himself, to become a part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s cheques, visits surreptitiously after dark. How can one respect, let alone adopt, the values of a people who do not, on any level whatever, live the way they say they do, or the way they say they should?I cannot accept the proposition that the four-hundred-year travail of the American Negro should result merely in his attainment of the present level of the American civilization. I am far from convinced the being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now—in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life—expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power—and no one holds power forever. White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live. Rather, the white man is himself in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being."

I’m very near the end of writing my new book now, and struggling every day to eject the invisible antagonist from my head, the one that says, “You’ll never convince me,” the one that says, “Maybe you want to dial that back a few notches so as not to step on anyone’s toes.” Most of all, the one that says, “Hah! Do you really think people will believe that if we begin to see culture clearly, everything changes from despair to possibility?”

I never met James Baldwin. I don’t know if he arose from sleep filled with the overflowing love, pain, and anger seared into every page of his work, bursting to let it out; or levered himself up out of bed to sit quaking before the typewriter, making himself live up to his own challenges. But I only have to think of James Baldwin to quiet the voice in my head.

Sure, as I read this passage from The Fire Next Time today, the little quibbles pop their heads over my mental horizon like prairie-dog scouts scanning the plains. Is there really a single subject called “the American Negro” or “the white man”? The freedom to make symbolic use of such categories—even if you include yourself—in some sense falsifies individual members’ capacity to go against the grain. And that “witch doctor”/”American psychiatrist” thing—that would be unlikely to get into print today.

But so what? Virtually every word Baldwin wrote demonstrated that art is the practice of freedom. His courage knocks me off my feet. I practice my art in his honor, and in honor of all the uncolonized minds, in the hope of someday being worthy of their company. (While you’re thinking about Baldwin, check out Brett Cook’s portrait of him in his “Models of Accountability/Divinity” series, also spotted on Facebook.)

I’ve been listening to a fair amount of Lurrie Bell lately, second-generation amazing blues player (there are some wonderful recordings that feature the father and son playing together, Carey Bell on blues harp and vocals, Lurrie Bell on guitar and vocals). Here’s Lurrie Bell doing Lowell Fulson’s wrenching blues standard, “Reconsider Baby.”

You said you once had loved me,
But now I guess you’ve changed your mind.
You said you once had loved me,
But now I guess you’ve changed your mind.
Why don’t you reconsider baby?
Give yourself just a little more time.