The Preacher Poet
I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world,
to teach children or to convey to the people who have children that
everything that lives is holy.
James Baldwin voiced us—articulated black experiences with a searing intensity that frightened some and enraptured others of us. Even if you could not read, once you heard Baldwin you were convinced of the power of words. His ability to move air was such that the vibrating oxygen Baldwin set in motion spoke to us as surely as if the words had issued from our own mouths.
Baldwin’s sermons (and that’s what his words were, instructions for living) entered us, vital as breathing.
Baldwin’s breath proclaimed what it meant to be flesh, and black. He told us of the here and now, told of barbarians who feared life in others and feared those who truly lived to love rather than to conqueror.
Baldwin spoke of racist hatred for black people, telling us that their hatred was but a mask for the intense hatred they felt for themselves and the sordid, twisted mess they had made of their own lives.
The gritty texture of Baldwin’s voice testified to the realities of black life, the ups, the downs, the terrors, as well as the hard-won tenderness found in our usually brief but nonetheless frequent stolen moments of exquisite and redemptive love. He was no romantic, but oh how he loved. He loved us all and gave his all in the love of us.
Indeed his very behavior posed the quintessential question: if not for the opportunity to love, what are we living for? Certainly not labor and toil, nor riches and fame, which we can never take with us when we inevitably exit the world; If we do not love our selves and our children, what will our living matter in the future? And if we do not understand that everyone’s child is our child, then how whole can we be as a human being?
When I was younger, when I thought I had a taste for anger, a yearning for retribution, I was always mystified and sometimes even miffed by Baldwin’s insistence on love. Now I am older, directed by the wisdom of age: sooner or later, most of us grow tired of fighting but we never tire of love.
What was bracing about Baldwin was his insistence that we be humans regardless of how inhuman our tormentors might act, and as Baldwin so eloquently reminded us, their behavior was an act, most likely a ruse to mask their fear of us, or worse yet a lie to camouflage their fear that they were not what they tried to make us believe they were; they were not gods, conquerors, lords and such. No. They were merely what we all are, human beings trying to survive and prosper.
It is easy to think of Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, raining down fire and brimstone. He was, after all, a professional evangelist as a teen. It is easy to think of Baldwin as a Shakespeare in and of Harlem since his command of language is now legendary. But it is wrong to reference Baldwin solely from outside of black culture. Think of this black voice as a life-force, as the sound of us, as the sound of living, as a drum. A drum, an insistent beating drum whose rhythm was synchronous with our own heartbeats.
The fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard. Only once your heart was moved by the way this man moved words could you fully understand the power he brought to us who were told time and time again, in a million ways, day, night and seemingly always that we were totally powerless, or at least powerless to prevent first our enslavement and now our ongoing oppression and exploitation.
The power Baldwin brought to us was a clear-eyed recognition of world realities, we, just as everyone else, were the range of behaviors and emotions, memories and dreams that it means to be human, and as such our task was to be the best human we could be, which best necessarily meant the embracing of other humans. You are a human and you must embrace other humans is a powerful message to give to those who have been taught otherwise.
And this fire to be wholly human that Baldwin breathed into our lives was no mere mental exercise. Baldwin went far, far beyond thinking because he spoke with a passion for life, a passion to get the most out of life even as he admitted that as we struggled on inevitably we would err, we would make mistakes, we would fail from time to time, even backslide, and knowingly do wrong, after all we are humans and that’s part of what humans do, but Baldwin would remind us as long as we are alive we have the opportunity, indeed we have the obligation to correct our mistakes and to strive to be better than we have been.
Baldwin was telling us: grow up. Of course, you’ve been done wrong and you’ve done wrong. We all have. We all have been done wrong. We all have done wrong. Grow up, face life. All the wrong in the world does not mean that you and I can’t do what’s right.
And ultimately, while James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important, especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.
Baldwin was full of passion and the very fire light of life. To reduce him simply to books is to miss the music that this man made of words.
Thus, if you think you know James Baldwin, if you think you love our literature and you have never heard him deliver the word, and you do not have his spoken word CD, then you don’t really know the breadth and depth of James Baldwin.
Between September 19, 1986 and September 18, 1987, James Baldwin spent a year working on a spoken word CD with producers/composers/musicians David Linx and Pierre Van Dormael. Recorded in Brussels, Brooklyn and New York City, A Lover’s Question (Label Beu, Harmonia Mundi) is a masterpiece of merging words with music: a precursor to what is now a popular artform.
The producers succeed in more than providing a sonic backdrop for the words; they actually composed orchestrations that both complemented and mirrored the intent and expression inherent in Baldwin’s delivery of his complex poems. The success is then on three levels: the poems are phat, the music is tight, and the musicians respond with an exhilarating verve that let’s you know they too were giving their all, giving their love and not simply going through the changes to get paid.
Aside from a brief musical introduction and an elegiac solo rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” on which Baldwin talk-sings the famous gospel composition, there are only three poems on this CD. One poem, “The Art of Love,” features operatic vocalist Deborah Brown and is done as an art song, an interlude between two poetic suites.
The two-part “A Lover’s Question” continues in the vein of the Fire Next Time. Baldwin questions the citizens of his birth nation as to their desire to hate: “Why / have you allowed / yourself / to become so grimly / wicked?” and “No man can have a / harlot / for a lover / nor stay in bed forever / with a lie. / He must rise up / and face the morning / sky / and himself, in the / mirror / of his lover’s eye.” As Baldwin knew, true love is always honest even though honesty is seldom an easy fact to live with in a land where lies and commerce replace truth and reciprocity.
The concluding number is the three part opus “Inventory / On Being 52” and it is the introspective Baldwin fingering his own wounds (some of them self-inflicted). He does not flinch as he cross-examines his own life and realizes the terrible costs of his mistakes, the terrible beauty of embracing both the terrors and joys of being human. Baldwin manages in a stream of consciousness style to encourage us to live the good life, suggesting that the good life is a different life from the life/lie that too many of us live. Baldwin encourages us not simply to march to the beat of a different drummer, Baldwin tenderly implores us to be different drummers.
Tap out the real rhythms of life with our every footstep in the dark, our every embrace of what we and others are and can become. Reject the ultimately tiresome and ephemeral wisdom of materialism / accept the rejuvenating life-cycle rhythm of the earth. Thus Baldwin says “Perhaps the stars will / help, / or the water, / a stone may have / something to tell me, / and I owe a favor to a / couple of old trees.”
“Inventory / On being 52” is a deep song, but then, as he says, “My father’s son / does not easily / surrender. / My mother’s son / pressed on.” Every young poet needs this old man’s CD in their collection, this compass of compassion, this example of the passionate heights the spoken word can attain. If you as a poet do not know A Lover’s Question then you do not know the full history of your own human heartbeat.
James Baldwin. His life, his teachings, his commitment, his words embody one of the great paradoxes of the contradictions of life—and regardless of misplace beliefs in idealism, in an eternal anything, in a person being solely and only one thing or another, regardless of our worship of the false idol of ideas and dualism—experience teaches us, all life, every life is contradictory. In fact, to be alive is a contradiction, is a fight against death, literal death, symbolic death, the death of compassion, the death of our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others and the world we live in.
Life is a contradiction, and as such, isn’t it wonderful for us to realize that one of the most insistent prophets, preachers and poets of love was a queer, black man standing against the homophobia, standing against the misogyny (and surely hating women also means hating the earth), standing against the racism, and all the other -isms endemic to the place and time within which Baldwin was born.
James Baldwin. Clearly modeling for all of us what it meant to be a man, and more importantly what it meant to be human and live in a time of institutional war and inhumanity.
I love James Baldwin.
—kalamu ya salaam
[The first version of this essay, essentially most of part 1, was originally published in Mosaic Literary Magazine, Spring 1999. The second version of this essay, part 1 & part 2, was originally published as part of the booklet accompanying the 1999 reissue of James Baldwin’s A Lover’s Question.]
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James Forman, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with James Baldwin, in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.
Photograph by Danny Lyon / Magnum