“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” — James Baldwin
James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers. As a gay black man coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, he experienced discrimination from two fronts and thus shaped his lifetime activism. He was ruthless in his pursuit and expression of the truth–his truth certainly, but also the truth of the human condition: good and evil and all inbetween. He is an amazing writer, able to slice right through any illusion or mask I might hold dear and yet somehow at the same time lift me up out of the depths of the shadow and into the light. He urges us to have the courage to face every dark thing and turn it into love — in all its many forms. There is much more to say about this brilliant man than I can write in one post, but I urge anyone who has not read his work to do so. He is one of the best examples of someone who wrote from the shadows of fear, racism, and prejudice of almost every kind. In writing about it, he found the strength and clarity to overcome those things. He found his voice, the light of truth as he saw it, and the transforming power of love, art, and simply having the courage to speak the truth and do the right thing.
He believed that love was the ultimate goal of human existence, and the only way to survive, transform, and overcome all that brings itself against love. He describes it in this way:
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth… You must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens you.”
James Baldwin not only wrote of how to transform the shadow within a person, but the shadows of society as well–including the ones that oppressed and attempted to silence his own voice. Perhaps most of us have not faced the obstacles he did; however, he doesn’t differentiate between his struggles and someone else’s. I find this remarkable in itself. In writing of how he fought to be who he is and overcome all that came against him, he left a legacy for every human being, writer or not, to do the same thing with what we fight against or what fights against us.
He wrote his mind and in that process he certainly found personal healing of course, although he would have used a different definition for it than that. For him, the healing path took the course of an often fierce adherence to truth: personal or otherwise–no matter how painful, difficult, or even dangerous that may be. His legacy is a brilliant body of work and an example of a life that transformed his pain into something that brought light, love, and truth into the most darkened recesses of racism and intolerance. To be able to face hatred and stand unflinchingly truthful and strong in self respect and love for others is inherent in his writing and his life.
Two short bios on James Baldwin:
Photo of James Baldwin from Wikipedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.