Sunday, September 27, 2009

James Baldwin on the Mirror of the Self

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.

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.

Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time.

No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time.

Pessimists are the people who have no hope for themselves or for others. Pessimists are also people who think the human race is beneath their notice, that they're better than other human beings.

The face of a lover is an unknown, precisely because it is invested with so much of oneself. It is a mystery, containing, like all mysteries, the possibility of torment.

The question of sexual dominance can exist only in the nightmare of that soul which has armed itself, totally, against the possibility of the changing motion of conquest and surrender, which is love.

To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the making of bread.

You know, it's not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.

There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.

James Baldwin made a point of being positive, rather than negative, even when he was angry. His voice, as part of the civil rights movement, was an essential voice. He preferred peace to war, he preferred love to hate. But he was not afraid to speak out against social injustice, institutionalized racism, and many other forms of oppression.

What strikes me now, in reading through Baldwin's published works, as well as in his public speeches, interviews, and occasional op-ed pieces, is that he continually emphasized that the worst forms of oppression are internalized oppression: what people do to themselves, often unconsciously. He was famous for being an outspoken Black civil rights activist and speaker; but even within the civil rights movement, he was not affirmed for being gay. He never apologized, and he never took shelter in the closet; nonetheless, in his lifetime he was never a "famous Black gay writer," but rather a "famous Black writer." The Black community still has difficulty with loving its gay sons.

I think of Baldwin whenever I hear rhetoric from the leaders of a civil rights group say, First we have to fix this problem, before we can address that other problem. Don't they realize that they are intertwined? that they cannot be separated? I think of Baldwin whenever I encounter rhetoric that denies that civil rights, and the human freedom to simply be openly and freely oneself, are at the core of every human experience: that to become truly human we must all free each other as well as ourselves. I think of Baldwin whenever I see a group-within-a-group being quietly moved off the center of the stage because their identity complicates the singular quest for a singular civil goal.

But people are complicated, not single-issue automatons. You can't exclude parts of yourself from your quest to be free, and still be a whole person. You can't ignore others who make you uncomfortable without creating division where there ought to be unity. The rhetoric of civil rights must include genuine diversity, or it will fail because of its own hypocrisy. In truth, hiding aspects of oneself ties up a lot of energy that could fruitfully be used if harnessed.

Liberty is not liberty if it is only partial liberty.

In this, I freely admit to being a Jeffersonian at heart. (As, I think, Baldwin was.) There is an element of pragmatism involved, of course: one has to pick one's battles. So I saw Baldwin at times focusing on one aspect of a rights campaign, and not talking about the rest. But almost as often his discussion were inclusive, and made connections between the necessity of personal liberty and the necessity of respecting the liberty of others. We are all very much the same: unique.

Over and over again, Baldwin reminds us that to be free we must be honest about who and what we are. We must know ourselves well enough to know where we have taken on the role of the oppressor, and taken it upon ourselves to censor ourselves before others can. We do the work of our oppressors for them, by stopping ourselves from speaking out in the face of censure. We hide in plain sight. We pretend to be powerless. We become invisible, ignored, safe.

But in doing so, in giving away ourselves, we lose everything.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Are we not here simply talking about conditioning? I had a wife once whose mother pretty much told her every day that she was stupid and so she grew up believing she was stupid when she was anything but. It took me years to build up her confidence. There was actually a damn good artist lurking on the inside of her but she refused to believe that anything she did would be worth anything. Boy was she surprised when people started paying money for the stuff.

2:39 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, conditioning, indoctrination, coming to believe what others tell us, all of those things, which I think are all aspects of this.

But it's also about the identities we build, including those we discover—such as the repressed artist—when we finally stop believing what the tribe told us about ourselves.

I've heard many similar stories, BTW. I'm glad her artist did finally merge.

7:32 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Baldwin's prose is uniquely powerful and morally compelling. Last year, I spoke at a writing retreat at a bed & breakfast, and brought a bunch of my favorite writerly passages along to read aloud, as a reminder about the rhythm and cadence of great writing. And judging from the body language of those in attendance, I think a passage from Baldwin's The Fire Next Time was the most evocative of all.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That doesn't surprise me at all, John. His prose is singularly, well, muscular. It coils with power. What's interesting is that his travel writing, his essays, and his interviews all contain that same power. There was so much there, I think we still don't really know how much.

But that's a great image, from your workshop. I'll remember that if I find myself in a similar situation. Thanks.

2:30 PM  

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