I write a lot about and mainly for the living. I avoid the safe cushions of posthumous eulogies that protect me from future disappointments that are most common among living perpetrators. Plus, the living and unsung heroes need to be reminded of the impossible battles they daily win, from rising to resting.
Yet, any human being who not merely by letter but intensely by spirit transcends the traditional boundaries between worlds by staying alive after their body has returned to earth deserves to be celebrated still. Their unique legacy has brought the living dead back to full life, rekindling the creativity that transcends mere existence into budding life.
Of these heroes, one stands out in literature. While many have styles that enchant, serenade or bewitch the senses and others words that touch the heart, this one has a sword that tickles the nerve.
It’s that feared part of the being, the egg not to be trampled on or tempered with, a piece to be left in peace, surrounded by tribal-preservation silence and diplomatic correctness. It is a volcano not to be messed with because it holds the sensitivity of all that an era has deemed too shameful to be told, too embarrassing to be unveiled or shared, too awkward to be faced and probably should wait for a more mature or emancipated generation that has made peace with it all.
But this mere man cannot rest until his words, full of a spirit that will not be silenced, a spirit of fire, are freed. And so, as his body rests, unable to withstand the fight, his spirit sparks on, in the legacy of his essays and other writings, keeping his inheritance alive in the mind of his spiritual children.
Paris has adopted many a refugee fleeing, with the American exodus, from the country’s racial -and no doubt other- turmoil. James Baldwin was among these, and, maybe consequently, a major contributor of the contemporary literary, philosophical and political thoughts of the twentieth century, a prominent and pioneering figure in Black history, in humanity as a whole and a civil rights activist of his time. Yet the true depth of his sword shows as his words transcends his era and its context. What he spoke then still unearths deeper issues faced today…
For me, there are five among the man’s main inspirational moments, from extracts of Baldwin’s work or sayings.
This sentence by Baldwin really rationalises one of his most known oeuvres, every bit worth the read, the 1963 book The Fire Next Time: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!” It is also what I believe summarises his purpose to expose the issues that ravage humanity at its core to be consumed by the fire of his words bringing them to burning light, in a devastation comparable to the physical flood in Noah’s times. This is a man with a mission.
- In every generation, there are those who are lost, often because they run away from their past, out of shame, ignorance or fear. But for Baldwin the past is a necessary foundation to any good soaring – “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” I do agree. It is the knowledge of the ground that will determine the way you organise and optimise soaring from it.
- We live among a rainbow of opinions, judgements even and it is often hard to hear one’s own voice. It is more often than not that those who want to impose their way as the only right one have us doubt our own choices, and have us believe that we are less than we are because we are not them and do not have the same belief system. To that, in a letter to his nephew, Baldwin retorts “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.“
- It is a rare, avant-gardist and daring position, especially in Balwin’s times and environment, that where God is concerned, there is a condition to his/her existence that denies him/her as an end and only acknowledge him/her if she/he provides a way to something greater, specifically freedom and love. But by God, is it refreshing and reviving! “If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can’t do that, it’s time we got rid of him.”
- But among all saying, to bring everyone back to the reality of our interdependence, whomever we identify ourselves as, is quite the unnerving revelation. To be told the emotional -and once physical- captors are as enslaved as their prisoners, that it is not just about freeing ourselves but also freeing them is a deep lesson in emotional and philosophical emancipation – “We cannot be free until they are free.’“
Editor’s note – James Baldwin was celebrated during Cabaret for Freedom special James Baldwin on the 13th of October 2018 by the likes of award-winning writer Jackie Kay, Jamaican poet Kei Miller with new work inspired by Baldwin, commissioned by MLF, and sponsored by the Royal Literary Fund, Shirley May, SuAndi, Isaiah Hull, Young Identity, Tiki Black and Billie Meredith. The event was hosted at St John’s Church by poetess and author Shirley May and event organiser James Walmsley and was supported by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust. This article was written just after that event.