When I was fourteen I was admitted to one of Chicago’s most prestigious college preparatory schools. The tuition was double what my parents paid for rent, and at times decisions had to be made about what necessity we would go without in order for me to continue attending. One autumn it was gas, and while I walked the school’s grounds, which had the ornate and sprawling quality of an Old World palace, I carried with me a secret: for weeks my morning showers were taken at the public park near our apartment. At about this time I started keeping a journal in which I wrote short descriptions of the objects that signified the extreme disparity between my private and public life. One entry was a description of the main hallway in which photo montages of each graduating class hung chronologically. At the south entrance, frame after frame was occupied almost exclusively by white men. A few frames down, a lone dark figure surrounded on all sides by what were now supposed to be his peers. I remember staring at his dark skin and into his inexpressive eyes, feeling that I knew something of the solitude he felt even though the peppering of color had become denser toward the end of the hall where my face would eventually hang.
When I was finishing up with Emerson College's Publishing and Writing program, I took a novel writing workshop by the novelist Kim McLarin. We were assigned to read several first novels of notable authors, but the one that stood out for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. My only previous experience with Baldwin had been with Giovanni’s Room, which moved me deeply, but for some reason I had not pursued his other works. After we discussed Baldwin’s work, we watched part of the PBS documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. I had never heard Baldwin speak before, but when I did, I knew that this eloquent voice not only unabashedly spoke the truth, but demanded you listen as well.
Although Beacon has not primarily been known to publish poetry, we have always had a select list of exceptional poets who reflect the values at the core of our mission, including, for many years, the premier poet of the natural world, Mary Oliver, and, of course, the inimitable Sonia Sanchez, who represents a vibrant tradition of oral interpretation that blends and bends the lines between verse and music. Sonia has famously performed with rap artists and memorably with Sweet Honey in the Rock and other artists, including Diana Ross. Sonia has been on a mission for decades of using poetry in public schools and she makes it a rule that wherever she’s invited to read for an adult audience, she also tries to visit a local school and read to and engage with the students. We are enormously proud of her work.
We are also proud to have on our backlist several books of Spanish-language poets in bilingual editions, including a wonderful volume of Lorca and Jimenez, and one of Neruda and Vallejo, both translated by Robert Bly.
On the left, previous editions of James Baldwin's Jimmy's Blues and Gypsy. On the right, Beacon's forthcoming edition of Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems
It's not a surprise that our favorite this year is from Eboo Patel, speaking at Elizabethtown College. What's not to love? Eboo is a visionary and a engaging writer (see Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground for confirmation), and here he's praising the intro to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, another book that we are tremendously proud to have published.
But our appreciation of the speech goes beyond the mere pride that a Beacon author was moved to write about a classic Beacon book. Eboo illuminates the revelations and anxieties in Baldwin's text—the feeling of being driven to write, the conflicts inherent in being present in a dominant culture that attempts to exclude you and your experiences, feeling both pride and discomfort in identity—and he shares how that piece of writing helped shape his own growth as a young activist and author. In short, it made us pause and think about all the reasons we love bringing books to readers. Enjoy!
In every phase of my life, there have been texts
that have lit the path. When I was a kid, and sports were king in the
schoolyard, the Great Brain books taught me that being smart had its
uses. In high school, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Ken Kessey’s One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Grateful Dead’s From the Mars Hotel
showed me that the American tradition had a rebel streak. In college, my world
was rocked by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, essays by bell hooks,
Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and ani difranco’s Not a
Pretty Girl – works that taught me a thing or two about power and identity.
graduation, when I was asking myself who I wanted to be and what impact I hoped
to have, the work I found myself returning to over and over again, the piece
that served as both my prod and my guide, was the opening six pages of James
Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Those six pages,
titled Autobiographical Notes, are an account of how James Baldwin
carved out his commitments and understood their consequences.
the piece for its fury, for its stark take on the world as it is, for its
ability to confront contradiction without resolving it. It reminded me of the
first two Led Zeppelin albums: the energy of the music so powerful you can feel
it literally burst through the skin of the studio production.
lines: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at
about the time I learned how to read … In those days my mother was given to the
exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. I took them over with one
hand and held a book with the other …”
closely to those sentences. Baldwin is articulating how he first heard the call
of his vocation, how he first felt within himself the beating heart of a
writer. It did not happen on a fancy trip to Europe. It did not happen in the
middle of an advanced course in graduate school. It happened in the living room
of an overfull Harlem apartment, surrounded by squalling babies.
ability to listen to yourself, to tease out the signal from the noise in a
world that is a crashing, clanging cacophony, that’s a treasure that is worth
more than any amount of silver or gold.
Notes was written
in response to a request by Baldwin’s fiction publisher to fill out a
standardized form for their records - date of birth, city of residence, etc.
The very idea of the form pissed Baldwin off, so he turned it around and
started writing on the back. It became the essay that I’m quoting from today.
Makes me look at every boring form I’m handed and wonder how to turn it into a
lasting work of art. Also, it confirms my suspicion that an awful lot of
creativity is at least partially a result of the chip certain people carry on
their shoulder. I know that chip well. So did Baldwin.
“Any writer … feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than
a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent - which attitude certainly
has a good deal of evidence to support it. On the other hand, it is only
because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important … the things which hurt
(you) and the things which help (you) cannot be divorced from each other.”
One of my
biggest surprises when I graduated from college was just how indifferent the
world was to me. I suspect I was like many of you here: front row in all my
classes, eager beaver in every possible extra-curricular. College is an
environment that nurtures those qualities, and rewards them. The rest of the
world, not so much. I literally remember thinking to myself a few months after
I graduated, ‘Where are all the people telling me how great my new idea is,
congratulating me for committing to read this classic novel, encouraging me as
I begin a new writing project.’
when I was truly grateful for the faculty and staff who nurtured me through my
liberal arts education. The gift they gave me was helping develop those
capacities and values in the first place, supporting me as I flexed those
muscles. My gift to them would be to continue growing those muscles without
them by my side.
essay helped me realize that I had entered a new stage, a stage defined not so
much by encouragement but by struggle. Nobody was sitting in their office
waiting for me to walk in so they could give me money for my new organization
or extra credit for my new intellectual endeavor. The world was not going to
convince me that I had something worthwhile to offer. I was going to have to
convince it. This meant I first had to convince myself. And that is not
just a question of capacity, it is also a question of identity.
is at the heart of Baldwin’s work. He once told his friend and editor Sol Stein
that he was born with three strikes against him: he was black, he was gay and
he was ugly. The third could be disputed, but the first two were definitely
is blunt about “the tremendous demands and very real dangers of (his) social
situation”. He writes of how being black in America made him “hate and fear the
world”, putting him in a “self-destroying limbo.” So how does he navigate
forward? By adopting a different lens looking back.
the most powerful lines in the essay are when Baldwin cites the great masters
and creations of Western civilization – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, the
Empire State Building. He points out that these masters are not really part of
his heritage. Some of the people would have happily enslaved him, yet he is
drawn to their ideas and creations nonetheless. So what is he to do?
writes: “I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to
make them mine – I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place
in this scheme – or else I would have no place in any scheme.”
first day as a graduate student at Oxford, some fancy-pants university official
found out I was an American and said, “Oh, how wonderful. Do you know Bill
Clinton? Such a charming man.” I thought to myself, ‘Sorry, you got the wrong
guy. My parents own Subway Sandwich Shops in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.
Biggest thing I’ve ever done is shake Michael Jordan’s hand in the parking lot
of the golf course near my house.’
about that situation screamed to me, ‘You don’t belong here.’ I must say, the
exit sign looked pretty alluring sometimes.
of walking, I took out my Baldwin and re-read that essay. I realized the
tradition would take no note of me slinking away, nor was it about to magically
throw open its doors and let me in. It was my responsibility to shape a special
attitude to it, to knock on its doors, to make my contributions, to not simply
cry foul but to effect change.
dimension of a liberal arts education is a long look back, a listening in on
the great conversations that have threaded through past centuries. But simply
being conversant in what others have said is not the same as being educated,
not at least in the Elizabethtown way.
the question: what is my special attitude to those things that have gone in the
past? Even those dimensions that might have turned their back on people like
me? How might I learn from them, love them, embrace the parts that are
humanizing, change the parts that hurt and marginalize, make them my own? How
can you stand at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery and look both ways
I love Autobiographical
Notes for how it spoke to me at 22, I love it for its jazz and war. As I
stand here this morning, I am fifteen years past the days when I re-read Autobiographical
Notes night after night, seeking new insights into my personal drama. Going
back to it now helps me remember the intensity of that time in my life. Make no
mistake, I envy you the stage you are about to enter.
lines of the essay are different. For all the passion of the previous pages,
the searing talk of racism and America and special attitudes, Baldwin doesn’t
end the essay by making huge demands or issuing earth-shattering proclamations.
He ends with lines that are both simple and modest, lines that sound almost
like a prayer, lines that I believe honor a graduating class of a school
devoted to service and to others.
He wants to
be an honest man and a good writer. He wants to last, and get his work done.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America's foremost writers. His essays, such as "Notes of a Native Son" (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he primarily made his home in the south of France.
His novels include Giovanni's Room (1956), about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country (1962), about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in much savage criticism from the black community. Going to Meet the Man (1965) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.
The following essay opens Notes of a Native Son, a collection considered by many his most influential work. We publish it here today in conjunction with an essay by Eboo Patel about the impact this essay had on his life and work.
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting
novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my
childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it
with the restrained observation that I certainly would not
consider living it again. In those days my mother was given
to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As
they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a
book with the other. The children probably suffered, though
they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way
I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and
over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about
everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.
I must also confess that I wrote—a great deal—and my first
professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to
be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts,
when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution
won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church
newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady
editor, though I don’t remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a
letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry,
about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted
by all these goings-on, but my father wasn’t; he wanted me to
be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher,
and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with
the world of commerce and industry—I guess they would say
they struggled with me—and when I was about twenty-one I
had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When
I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned
out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews—mostly, as it turned
out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of
my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book,
in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about
the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly
the same fate as my first—fellowship, but no sale. (It was a
Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had
decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem—
which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print
than it was in life—and I packed my bags and went to France,
where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he
was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal
to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world
looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that
any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as
I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced
from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only
because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to
be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is
tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
When one begins looking for influences one finds them by
the score. I haven’t thought much about my own, not enough
anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of
the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech—and something of
Dickens’ love for bravura—have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable
people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose,
the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has
been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by
the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and
this is not special pleading, since I don’t mean to suggest
that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro
problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan
under the weight of information, and everyone therefore
considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce
traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only
two—For or Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to
say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly
aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however
motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better
than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—
to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the
source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly
inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price
a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at
length, with nothing to be articulate about. (“You taught
me language,” says Caliban to Prospero, “and my profit on’t
is I know how to curse.”) Consider: the tremendous social
activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and
Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working
to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters
troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro’s
progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or
not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for
clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful
sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In
the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks,
for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to
look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible
for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own
development came when I was forced to recognize that I was
a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my
past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this
meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I
brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of
Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them
in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper;
this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other
heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly
been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them
mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special
place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any
scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was
forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself,
which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as
the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white
people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the
contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to
produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world.
And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-
destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.
Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this
experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.
This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out
of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty
then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was,
in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too
closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don’t think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I
do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life,
and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by
Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because
it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write
about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in
America can be even discussed coherently without bearing
in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions,
customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the
country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to
the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this
the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to
speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in
the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly,
in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings—at
least—of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison,
by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to
utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and
irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the
morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make
experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love
to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve
scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it’s impossible
to eat enough if you’re worried about the next meal)—and I
love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too
profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I
don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither
do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for
contempt. I love America more than any other country in
the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right
to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect,
that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may
even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must
find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through
the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than
this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
Last week a silly “debate” over Olympic champion gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair dominated social media. Fortunately, by the weekend, the same social media network that so often exasperates me coughed up an unexpected jewel:
A Facebook friend, Darryl Cox, put the link on my Wall after I’d posted a story on gang violence in SF that I’d read in The San Francisco Chronicle. Cox, who had worked in city government in San Francisco decades ago, is an excellent source of contemporary black history on “the Paris of the West.”
Cox told me that Take This Hammer had only aired once in San Francisco, in 1963, and that it had upset the powers that be in my hometown. I watched it for the first time last week, on August 3—coincidentally, one day after what would have been Baldwin’s 88th birthday. It was produced by KQED on behalf of National Education Television, predecessor of WNET in New York.
In it, Baldwin is an expert interrogator of his subjects, black residents of San Francisco. He is physically small but armed with an alarmingly direct gaze, a fearsome intellect, and a sharp way of drawing out his subjects. The producer or director also made the wise decision to cut in excerpts of Baldwin talking directly to the camera, seated in what appears to be a tidy apartment, smoking, wearing a natty white shirt and neck-kerchief, and succinctly, somewhat dispassionately deconstructing his findings.
Among several pungent comments and observations by Baldwin, during the 44-minute long documentary:
—”There will be a Negro president of this country, but he won’t be president of the same nation we are sitting in now.”
—”The Liberal can’t be safe and heroic too.”
—“You cannot pretend you’re not despised if you are.”
I am greatly moved by this documentary. For starters, Baldwin is a literary and journalistic hero of mine. Second, as anyone who has read my opinion-writing during the past decade probably knows, I was born in San Francisco in 1963.
Growing up there, I felt a thrill of endless possibilities—much as the techie-hipsters and financiers who currently throng its streets likely experience—a pervasive sense of optimism aided in no small part by the city’s spectacular vistas, cozy layout, sophisticated understatement. (Though a journalist friend, Tim Golden, once told me that he found the city and some of its denizens a mite ‘precious’ for his liking.)
My family was middle-class, we lived for a time in subsidized housing on Potrero Hill, then Bernal Heights, then in a tidy house on the West or ‘ocean’ side of the city, which my Mom bought. I attended well-funded public schools in the Sunset District and went to church camp in Sonoma County every summer. Only when I reached my mid-20s and entered the workforce in earnest did it occur to me that my race or gender might be features that could slow my professional development and possibly dampen my chances for a successful career. As a 1963 resident tells Baldwin in “Take this Hammer,” no blacks had to fear a Bull Connor or a Klansman chasing them down the city’s hilly inclines. But one might just be “killed with a pencil,” instead, in the city’s corporate or retail workforce. My adult family-members all worked in government agencies, which offered job security and enforced meritocracy. There were few immediate role models for me as I made my entree to private industry—the news business—during and after college.
I outline that dynamic in greater detail in my current book, and acknowledge that the media business in the Bay Area—such as it was in the 1980s when I came of age—was and is a unique animal within the overall workforce in San Francisco. And now, of course, the media industry has been all but subsumed by the tech industry, and the population of black residents has been diminishing steadily since the early 1980s. Are native blacks who remain being employed at these shiny new enterprises? What do you think?
The sentiments expressed by the city’s black residents who were interviewed by Baldwin in ‘63—particularly the young adult males who are frustrated over being shut out of the workforce—are devastating... and familiar. I have watched this documentary three times since Darryl Cox shared it with me.
I am still processing Take this Hammer and will probably write about it again.
For now, I hope you find the time to watch it in full: I love my hometown but I hope you can forgive me if I am also a bit cynical about its legendary reputation as a citadel of social and economic egalitarianism.
Take This Hammer lives, by the way, at the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, which is housed at my alma mater, San Francisco State University. I believe it deserves a home, too, at the Paley Center in New York. Then again, as a black SF native and a Baldwin adherent, I am not exactly impartial about its historic significance.
(Oh, and a viewing tip: Unless you need them, disable the captioning feature before watching.)