“You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone.”
We are not far removed from the 30th anniversary of the death of writer James Baldwin, who died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France on December 1, 1987. Last night, I completed The Fire Next Time, his 1963 release that contains two essays: “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind.” I have read nearly every novel and collection of essays by Baldwin, but with the exception of Go Tell it on the Mountain, have not revisited his words in nearly 40 years.
As I read The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s voice, and the intelligence, emotion and spirituality behind it were not just familiar, but as intrinsic as my breathing. It was remarkable in that it was as if the passage of time between readings had never occurred; I had been so profoundly transformed by his writing that I shared his sense of self awareness, rhythm, logic and even sentence structure, in my own crude approximation of his genius.
With that, I was hard pressed to recite a famous Baldwin quote; this post’s title and opening line will need to serve that purpose. I have always marveled at Baldwin’s literary dexterity, but with this most recent reading, realized that his vocabulary is relatively simple and straightforward. What I did recall accurately was his mastery of complex sentence structure which is rivaled only by the resulting catharsis upon reading them.
Blackness informed his writing, but never defined it. Baldwin’s blackness was not a handicap, it was not something he had to overcome or rise above through his intelligence; his greatness was in his blackness. His words challenge without being confrontational or condescending. Revelation is from the inside out; there is no peeling back of layers, which implies useless elements to be discarded. Nothing is wasted. Think of a time-lapse photo of a flower blooming; that is Baldwin’s writing.
While not religious, the drama, renewal and healing power of love expressed in religious thought are at the core of Baldwin’s value system. He demands purity in the expression of truth, in laying one’s soul bare. In this sense, he is much like John the Baptist, unafraid of the spiritual wilderness, leading by example, but also warning that the current path leads to destruction.
“If we–and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others–do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
The Fire Next Time, 1963
“And a really cohesive society, one of the attributes, perhaps, of what is taken to be a “healthy” culture, has, generally, and, I suspect, necessarily, a much lower level of tolerance for the maverick, the dissenter, the man who steals the fire, than have societies in which, the common ground of belief having all but vanished, each man, in awful and brutal isolation, is for himself, to flower or to perish.”
Nobody Knows My Name
If I am to make a single resolution for the new year, it will be to reacquaint myself with my muse and reread every one of his brilliant works. For my children, a Christmas wish: write me one sentence, “as clean as a bone,” on any subject you wish, that mirrors the structure of this 115-word gem from The Fire Next Time:
“This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible—this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.”