Pale Wire (Popscene)

Monday, September 13, 2004

James' Blues

Tonight I finished James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. It's a short book that contains two essays by the famous Black American writer. The first is a short letter addressed to his nephew and the second is a musing on America's "Negro Problem" centered around a brilliant explanation of the weakness inherent The Nation of Islam's ideals and appeal. It originally appeared in The New Yorker.

Baldwin's arguments about race relations were ahead of their time (the guy was living out the beautiful last chapters of Malcolm X's life when Malcolm was still an acolyte of Elijah Muhammad) and remain compelling today, not only because of their stunning insight but also their masterful presentation.

The guy could write.

I recently saw a Harvard professor on C-SPAN arguing that in the future Baldwin's prose will not be studied for its relevance to racial issues but for its literary value.

That may very well be but for now I'm happy to treasure his insights as well as his style.

Here are a few selections I particularly enjoyed. All emphases are the author's.

First, a lament on the lack of sensuality in White America:
The word "sensual" is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic black studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. 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 breaking of bread.

Now chew on this:
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn ones's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One much negotiate the passage nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.

And finishing that thought:
For the sake of one's children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion--and the value placed on the color of skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.

Verily, words to live by. Certainly, a great mind. Exceedingly, one of my heroes.