• Malachi Moore

Thank you, James Baldwin.

It’s strange to reflect back to such a familiar time and think of it as a completely different life. It feels like this year has been that way for most, if not everyone who have been in close contact with me. I look back to this past spring and remember the paradox of emotions I felt heavily throughout my body. A time of rejuvenation and new beginnings, feeling fulfilled and confident in my craft after receiving my Master’s, all draped under the hopelessness of my situation or, what I at least had perceived to be from the added anxiety of everything that had unfolded throughout the beginning of the year.

With nowhere to go, the world felt like it was at a complete standstill, and for a moment it appeared that the digital world—full of its shameless opinions and revealing transparency—was where every segment of our psychological needs were expected to be met. All around the country, Black individuals tuned in to the trending death count of another face similar to their own, and all around the world people saw the indifference our citizens had to the value of a person’s life.

Those who saw the contradiction, clear as day, went on one side, and those clouded with ambiguity went to another—of course—on the shoulders of an encouraging, former leader of the free world. Within that particular group, for me, were at one point in my life people who I could have effortlessly called family. It was not just their own opinions of me that I valued, but the communities in which we all formed our identities from. There are parts of me that still do, and it is those fragments that leave me, at times, very conflicted.

In many instances, good and bad, I’ve come to find that the truth of things are oftentimes never alluring and surely an unpleasant destination to reach, so much in fact that the trek is not often sought. But in deciphering our long suppressed history of race relations lies the explanation that my own discernment so desperately requires, and my thirst for inquiry far exceeds whatever illusioned, altered rhetoric that has made its way back into style.

If that meant learning how to sit with the ensuing emotions from pulling back the curtain, so be it; I have been in love, and been loved too deeply to simply forget the sentimental affection of my past. It was the fear of the fall itself, the rapid descent from the peak of a delusive pedestal of opinion I had casually perched on, that was of the biggest concern to me and -- at the same time -- made me realize the amount of influence others had on me; the cost of the fall would have been my destruction; I really had to be careful. It was around this time that I had finally picked up one of James Baldwin’s novels, not entirely sure of what my intentions were for his work, nor what his work had intended for me.

James Baldwin

1924 - 1987

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."

And so, through his words of self-discernment, love, confidence and candor I gained the intimate insight of a free man, and my inclined apprehension of self-deprecation from the preconceptions of the uninformed quickly dissipated. I became someone new; someone who loves himself, actively lives out their truth, and disregards the opinions of those who—one way or the other—choose not to do the same for themselves.

Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, New York with his biological mother and oppressive stepfather, the Baptist preacher of their congregation at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. His own words give insight to the proportion of malice his stepfather carried towards James’ innate curiosity and intelligence as a child, a ceaseless disparage nullified only by his mother and educators’ encouragement up until his nineteenth birthday, whereon the same day his stepfather passed from tuberculosis. With this greatly affecting Baldwin’s already impoverished family, he spent most of his adolescence caring for his younger siblings, ruminating on the conditions both of himself and of the role he played as a young, Black intellect in 1950 America.

Immersed in mundanity, Baldwin’s inclination towards the church declined as he became more self-aware to its hypocrisy towards the Black community and the relationship between him and his stepfather worsened. Ultimately James would leave religion behind entirely at the age of 17, conflicted in his commemorating of the time, it allowed him to reflect on his own relationship with God. His transparency on Christianity in its connection to Black Americans shed light on the parallel contradictions that inescapably exist. In brief, Baldwin accuses the faith-inspiring doctrine, the scripture that has so long been the only origin of hope for an oppressed group of people, to be the same instrument used in creating complacency by delaying salvation until death. It’s a sentiment that should be reweighed time and time again as we move towards progression; with the text always going to remain the same, it will naturally take on different meanings; why not acknowledge what it once was and make it better? Regardless of how you feel about Christianity, there is a real danger in yielding to an external force with the fabricated skin tone of your oppressor; it makes seeing the divinity inside yourself all the more difficult.

These self-reflections of Baldwin’s psychological discovery are what his work is made of, a contemporary perspective of the Black experience with symbolic power of rage and compassion, a cautionary tale and guide for the road of self-invention, made to be understood by all. He explains the thresholds of a young, Black artist in a suppressive America who pained to see both himself and artistry outside of the context of an African American. It wasn’t until James was fifteen years old—after meeting and studying under modernist painter, Beauford Delaney—did he even believe that a Black person could be an artist. And so, after being disillusioned by American prejudice and becoming comfortable with his sexuality as a gay, Black man, James Baldwin emigrated to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France, and it was there where he flourished as an artist.

When you are born Black in this country, your marked birthright is the influence you have on quite literally everyone you come across. Every act can either reassure, frighten or awaken something inside of your peers, and that burden is substantial. James’ mentors— not just Beauford Delaney but also educators from a very young age— had allowed him to see the artistic potential he carried, and the like-image of someone in existence who successfully lived out their own. He answered the call of a previous generation’s best effort put forward and began the climb himself, all the while remaining open to what proceeding perspectives had to offer. Back in his own country, images of a young Dorothy Counts, standing tall and proud in her checkered school-dress, being harassed in the sea of her all-white classmates began to expand further than the suppressed nation’s borders. James remarks being powerfully moved by these photos and credits them as being what drove him to return and offer his assistance in the Civil Rights Movement.

A title he himself did not claim, the work Baldwin did as a civil rights activist was met with tremendous hostility within its own community. Having not even been publicly open as a gay man, James voluntarily travelled across the country, giving lectures and sermons of the underlying truth to the social climate of the time, aligning with the peaceful and practical ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Soon the nation became privy to his incisive analysis of white racism and his eloquent descriptions of the oppressed’s pain and frustration, having been a victim himself from both’s projected insecurities. James became a martyr, in that sense, and awakened something in many who would have otherwise remained blind to the cause of their acts. He gave testament to the significance of a perspective told outside of ‘the common man’.

There is no coincidence to me delving into James Baldwin’s text when I did. They reflect on another time in my country where the condensed identities of a particular group of people were thrown into the national spotlight as everyone else idly decided how to comprehend the situation at hand, in both cases being the value of a Black American’s life. I was, not necessarily surprised, but distressed from the confirmed hidden prejudices of those very close to me, and for a time it was very difficult to understand who I was without the opinions of those that had not seen me as their equal. It is something James Baldwin himself and his predecessors before him, struggled to do all the same. At this point, there is nothing to do but to rely on those that have experienced similar emotions, and to flourish free from any unsophisticated opinions at all. And for that reason I am very glad that I finally found his work. It is proof to the testament he lived out: that a person could be present in their truth and affectionally demand it from those around him. Through his actions and written accounts, I see a man who sought out his humanitarianism through concise disillusionment, unbothered— one way or the other— to those that saw eye to eye with him or not.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced"

Here are a few of my personal favorites of James Baldwin’s discography:

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Notes of a Native Son

Nobody Knows My Name

If Beale Street Could Talk

The Price of the Ticket


James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni

James Baldwin on the Dick Caveat Show

James Baldwin Debate William F. Buckley at Cambridge University

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