“His Intimate Knowledge of People”

“The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.”

— James Baldwin on Martin Luther King from Harpers, 1961

photo: MLK at Cow Palace, SF 1964

“When Bessie sang and James P. Johnson plays ….”

I JUST stumbled upon this interview — a coincidental boon since a book I’m reviewing deals with much of this subject matter and will give me a way to frame the piece.

The link is an audio conversation: James Baldwin speaking with Studs Terkel about writing his novel Another Country and the then just-published collection of essays “Nobody Knows My Name and the process of reconnecting with the voices of his youth — the “things I saw and felt” as a child.

Baldwin explains how cut-off from himself he felt both in the States, and later in Europe where he had travelled to begin writing the book. Listening to records while writing in the icy white of Switzerland, he tells Terkel, didn’t just help him to reanimate home — but to understand something about a long, steady process of devaluation he had been experiencing all of his life.

“I realized it was a cadence, a beat, …. it was a question of the beat really … and Bessie had ‘beat’… I played Bessie everyday. …. A lot of the book is in dialogue, I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang and when James P. Johnson plays. It’s that tone, that sound — it’s within me.”

This epiphany sets him on a road to consider other things “lost” or obscured of elided. It’s both poignant and powerful, his revelations, all told in his very own unmistakable cadence:

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it’s a terrible,terrible thing to be….And in order to survive this you really have to dig down deep into yourself and recreate yourself really according to no image which yet exists in America . You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of you.

A Teaching Moment

THIS WILL be brief, as I am exhausted.
Even as distracted as I am of late, I watched out of the corner of my eye, the erupting discussion surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Auburn University English professor, Alan Gribben has chosen to make the book “easier” to teach because parents, teachers and students are “uncomfortable” with some of the “content” (read: “the n-word”). I’m linking here because, well, this is all exhausting — territory well-tread and bloodied. But what I’m left with is just this: The discussion — particularly the ongoing one on the virtual-water cooler we know as Facebook — that purports to be about “protecting our children” and “moving on” and showing them how we’ve “advanced” aren’t arguments: they are obfuscation. As painful as the truth is — and quite honestly continues to be — is something worth teaching. But really teaching.
It’s in the classroom where the real problem arises. That’s what’s getting lost in this discussion of Finn and the “slave” Jim. It’s imperative to have strong teachers capable of handing the moment (and its inevitable) when the students encounter that word: some giggle, others feel awkward and very visible, others feel like a target in open field. I’ve sat in those classrooms through most of my childhood and adolescence and even into graduate school — embodying that floating target. I know what happens where you’re the only person of color in the room and some sort of race bomb accidentally goes off in the classroom and the teacher doesn’t know how to handle it, so the whole thing flares, dangerously. And then, because, well you are often called upon to explain, contextualize, “speak for” other — the room turns to you.

I know this, too, as a journalist.

The problem isn’t that the words are in the text. They’ve been there. They aren’t a secret. They reflect a painful, protracted moment in this country. One we haven’t at this late date come to terms with. The idea of replacing it with the word “slave” — is not only imprecise it’s patently incorrect. The word is an ugly, American truth that can not be elided. Who are we serving here? Not children, who will feel lied to later. Given a text that had been prettied up by the Ministry of Truth (yes, Orwell would simply nod here), they will not be served, but duped. The issue here is something more essential: The need to have someone who is standing in front of the room who can walk students through that thicket is imperative. Doing a “find/replace” isn’t the answer. Euphemism seldom is. Let’s do battle with the truth.

Jeff Chang’s Meditation on Post-Election Culture Shifts

AUTHOR AND scholar Jeff Chang is the subject of a Q&A in Colorlines that parses the election. He looks the midterm as a harbinger of what’s to come. Culture, he suggests, “always moves before politics’ He cites Jackie Robinson’s Major League integration in the same breath as Ellen Degeneres’ coming-out preceding “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Cultural Change, he says “is often the dress-rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.

The disconnect, Chang explains, “is that progressives —have not yet figured culture into their theory of change. Unlike the right, they have no cultural strategy.”

In 2007 and 2008, Obama was the microphone, but he was not the song. He was the page, not the text. He called himself “an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.” And it’s clear that he still does not grasp the significance of the new cultural majority that elected him. The fact is that neither do we. The new cultural majority has not disappeared or shifted to the right. They stayed home this election. Obama did not reach them. We did not reach them.

One thing progressives need to do is to understand the importance of expressing our hopes and dreams in narratives. Progressives misunderstand culture. The right is clear about it—Beck, Brietbart, and O’Reilly were long in the creation; they are the products of a four-decade long conservative movement building initiative. We need to build up an infrastructure that includes cultural strategy. We focus on facts and figures, but stories are what move the country. Culture is where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. It is where the national imagination gets moved. So we need cultural strategy.

We also need to take the long view. Electoral politics is episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movement-building must be constant, long-term, and transformative. It is not a cyclical task. It is work that reaches toward the horizon.

The full interview here: