Here is one wonderful thing James Baldwin wrote about writing: “[the writer’s] importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.”
The world owes on its knees a debt to Baldwin, again and again, for taking the time and for describing ourselves to us with such clarity. Americans especially and white Americans no less. It is, after all, white Americans who need to be reminded that “it is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Baldwin is one of the most reliable truth-tellers in the collection that makes up my bookshelf, my intellectual canon and my political morality. He says the things I need to hear as an American, as a white person, as a human person, as a writer. This is another thing he wrote about writing (emphasis mine), and perhaps the one that jabs hardest — right in the deep place where all my fears and longings crouch:
“I think it is the most dangerous point in the life of any artist…It is the point at which many artists lose their minds, or commit suicide, or throw themselves into good works, or try to enter politics. For all of this is happening not only in the wilderness of the soul, but in the real world which accomplishes its seductions not by offering you opportunities to be wicked but by offering opportunities to be good, to be active and effective, to be admired and central and apparently loved.”
Shuddering all over from the truth of it, and from the dare inside it.
Toni Morrison compared Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me to Baldwin’s essays, and pretty much every review about the book repeats her. I finished the memoir this morning with lots of tears and note-taking and am happy to affirm the comparison — Coates’ commitment to the truth and rejection of “magic in all its forms,” above all the American Dream, is in keeping with Baldwin’s intellectual legacy, and once again we should feel gratitude that Coates took this time (which is time the world does not value, until suddenly it does, all at once) to describe these things. And I hope this leads to a James Baldwin reading renaissance because there ought to be, we need it and it is so good, and while part of me knows this is unreasonable, perhaps even lazy, another part of me remains convinced that certain discussions—namely those conducted by white people—about “race relations” need to end because James Baldwin already said what needed to be said about it.
Here is a wonderful thing Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
“And godless though I am, the fact of being human, the fact of possessing the gift of study, and thus being remarkable among all the matter floating through the cosmos, still awes me.”
Read this, read Baldwin, read the writers they write about, read the writers who say the things they didn’t say, thank them for the time they gave, wonder how a culture as cruel as ours permits brilliance like this to slip, at times, through its jaws.