Bearing Witness

REMEMBERING James Baldwin — 08.02.1924

“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
― James Baldwin

On occasion of what would have been his 88th Birthday, Happy Birthday, Jimmy B…

Bearing witness in San Francisco, 1963

“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.

Happy Birthday, James Arthur Baldwin

“Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

— James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987


SWAP IN some names and this could be on the op-ed page this morning:

“We have seen what happens when the word ‘democracy’ is taken to be a synonym for mediocrity; is not taken to mean to raise all of its members to the highest possible level, but on the contrary to reduce such members as aspire to excellence down to the lowest common denominator.
We have begun to see what happens to a country when it is run according to the rules of a popularity contest, we have begun to see that we ourselves are far more dangerous for ourselves than Khrushchev or Castro. What we do not know about our black citizens is what we do not know about ourselves; and what we do not know about ourselves is that we do not know about the world– and the world know it.Nothing can save us– not all our money, nor all our bombs, nor all our guns–if we cannot achieve that long, long-delayed maturity.”

— James Baldwin, from “What Price Freedom?,” 1964