Editorial Note: This letter was first published in June 2010 as “Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of Dear Barack Obama)” on the now defunct Red Room authors and books website. It is shared below on the eve of what would have been Baldwin’s 97th birthday.
For many, letter-writing as a literary tool for expressing personal reflections on public and private matters has yet to be surpassed by modern conveniences like emails and texts. Letters somehow seem to emerge out of a deeper wellspring of sincerity and intimacy. Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, and George Jackson’s nonfiction Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters, are two different kinds of books which used the same epistolary format to achieve similar emotional, spiritual, and political effects. One of the first to impress me with the potentially incandescent power of the genre was James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time, containing this classic: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” As good letters often do, Baldwin’s call to “make America what America must become” inspired a powerful response from writer Ariel Felton, titled A Letter to My Niece, published February 2019 in The Progressive Magazine.
A Satisfying Alternative
In some ways, much of what I’ve written and published, whether in the form of prose or poetry, could be described as letters to James Baldwin. Mind to mind. Heart to heart. Soul to soul. If anyone could help me decipher what I was looking at when I could not make sense of the ceaseless cruelties with which human beings hammer each other so mindlessly, I reasoned, it might be him. Since the possibility of interacting with him face-to-face was no longer an option following his physical death December 1, 1987, writing a letter provided a satisfying alternative:
Dear Mr. Baldwin--
If I were not writing this letter to you as one of my favorite authors, I would probably be writing it to Barack Obama because there is a great deal about him which tends to remind me of a great deal about you. The sentence structures he employs in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, often curve in and out of passages which virtually sing with eloquence and yet, at times, shout with an unruly detachment in defense of truths many people generally prefer not to hear. The first time I heard such courageous music pour from the pages of a book or witnessed syllables explode like miniature bombs of revelation was when I read your Notes of a Native Son, then later The Fire Next Time.
Your birthdays are very close too—his on August 4, only two days after yours. But he was born in 1961, just after you turned thirty-seven. In that same history-forging year when you published the book of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, addressed members of CORE in Washington, D.C., met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, traveled all the way to Israel and Istanbul, Turkey, and then, by the end of the year, completed what some still consider one of most controversial novels ever published in North America: Another Country.
Mr. Obama reminds me of you also because he could have easily chosen for himself and his family a fairly quiet life in which he might have enjoyed the comforts of substantial earnings and the respect of his peers minus the constant public jabs he now endures while working, seemingly unceasingly, on behalf on his countrymen. By the same token, you in 1954 could have elected to enjoy a nonstop bohemian party in Paris, France—hanging out with mega-diva Josephine Baker, fellow author Chester Himes, and the disturbingly brilliant artist Beauford Delaney-- instead of returning home to be spat upon while dodging rocks and bullets as you marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. and many thousands more to confirm, with spilled blood and weeping souls, our country’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy. Through essays, plays, and novels, you wrestled as naked as naked gets with the operational dynamics of race relations, sexual identity, and social imbalances as you witnessed them. Such a quintessential artist-activist did you become that it was impossible to ignore you.
President Obama appears to me have elevated and implemented the artist-activist concept to the role of empowered servant-leader, as creative in his vision of the world’s possibilities as you were in yours, and as dedicated to the battle to help humanity liberate itself from the collective fears, prejudices, and ignorance which have yet to contribute anything of functional value to the world community. He is also impossible to ignore; so much so, in fact, that an entire new would-be political party/movement has formed to generate automatic negative criticisms of his every move or spoken word, whether instinctively brushing aside a fly or placing his well-traveled feet atop his desk. And you know what else? He said his favorite novelist is your old friend, Toni Morrison , and that he is particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorites as well.
Speaking of Ms. Morrison, I recall your description of her (in the late 1970s I believe it was) as “This rather elegant matron with quite serious intentions.” You had already been resting in peace for six years when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, but I had no doubt that on that day you, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and a gang of others were all slurping celestial champagne and dancing to the glorious boom of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel-anointed voice.
Sorry, I kind of got off track. I wanted to say the reason I’m writing this letter to you today instead of to Barack Obama is because, for some reason, last night I was thinking about my own literary works and suddenly recalled your statement that you wanted mostly, “to be an honest man and a good writer.” And then today I received an email from the folks at Red Room suggesting members consider writing a letter to a favorite author, living or deceased. Just like that, you popped into my head and I heard myself talking with you, somewhat similar to the time I was writing my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and got stuck somewhere about halfway through it. I saw you in a dream when you said, “Shit baby, you slamming those keys like I used to! Don’t stop now, it’s getting better than you know.” The dream—I always remember it because you were dressed like a guru with long strings of colorful Mardi Gras-like beads around your neck-- dissolved my writer’s block and I pushed on to the novel’s completion.
During the four years I was stationed with the Air Force in England, you were still alive, and I was tempted every pay day to spend the rent money and car payment on a ticket to fly or float across the English Channel and see if I could track you down in the village of St. Paul de Vence. I was always proud of myself when I resisted the temptation, even while I shook like a junkie hungry for a fix in the worst way, and placed the endangered funds in my wife’s hands. I told myself I would get there at some point, and clearly had no way of knowing that less than a year after getting out of the Air Force, I would be in Florida, collecting unemployment checks and working on a book, when the news would hit that you had died from stomach cancer. I didn’t get pissed about never having spent the rent money to visit your home in France. I simply got drunk and read random passages from your books.
Once, I came across a response from Maya Angelou to critics who compared your works in fiction unfavorably to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Angelou said there was no question that Invisible Man is a masterpiece but she held you in great esteem because you “did the work and produced the books.” At the time, Invisible Man was Ellison’s only published novel and would remain so for the rest of his life. By the time of your death, you would have published some eight novels, at least as many volumes of nonfiction, four plays, and a collection of poetry.
Despite stones aimed at your head, guns pointed at your heart, or nooses tied with hopes of hanging you burning from one of them, it was just like Angelou said: you got the work done in a fantastically and indisputably admirable manner. And the fact that Mr. Obama is currently your homeland’s president demonstrates that none of your words or works, on or off the page, were produced in vain. This letter comes to say Thank You for the example provided, and to acknowledge that although I cannot confirm any definitive results at this point, I continue trying very hard to get the work done because you proved it is not only possible, but worth the aggravating labor required, worth the numbing anguish so often endured, and worth the miraculous joy that sometimes—just sometimes—follows in the end.
More from Aberjhani on James Baldwin
The Quotable James Baldwin
A Commanding Voice from the Past Speaks with Brilliant Clarity to the Present
The new long-anticipated literary memoir by Aberjhani, GREETING FLANNERY O’CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, features insightful essays on: Flannery O’Connor, James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, Antiracism, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Includes cover art by the author and a throw-back photo album. ISBN 978-1-71668-481-4.
A month ago, I made a commitment to extend the outreach from Bright Skylark Literary Productions to different social media communities with more active engagement as part of my response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The choice was easily made due to the fact so many are huddling together on social media sites at this time much the way our ancestors once gathered at night around fires to recap the day’s adventure or to exercise strength and safety in numbers.
What that translates into where this blog is concerned is that in addition to posting a little more frequently on Facebook, some of the posts shared there will be placed here as well. The items presented here, like this post, will likely include more material, such as additional photos or videos. This is the first of 2 parts on the value of Love and Laughter in the time of the coronavirus.
ON LOVE & LAUGHTER NO. 1
Love and Laughter are 2 expressions of human nature which share 1 very important quality: they are both excellent relievers of stress. Each possesses some capacity for reducing internally the pain of circumstances produced externally. Who can’t appreciate that in this year of the newly-revised normal? Let’s take a brief look at laughter in this post and check out Love in the next.
Late-night talk show hosts are well-paid for their ability to help us confront painfully serious issues while simultaneously laughing at them. So far as I know, the image shared with this post featuring POTUS #DonaldTrump was not produced by a celebrity talk-show host. Going by the site address at the bottom, it was done by Whomp Media. The humor comes from 2 factors.
The first is the tradition of political satire practiced by great humorists as Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg. In this instance, the creator of the quotation graphic is poking fun at President #DonaldTrump’s tendency to sometimes employ overly-simplistic assessments of issues like the #COVID19 pandemic, or calls for #socialjustice, by repeating the words: “very bad” or “nasty.” The designer has dubbed such pronouncements #Trumpentines.
The second is trickier and some might argue not so funny. It comes from the designer’s use of a popular quote taken from the #book The River of Winged Dreams: “Un-winged and naked, sorrow surrenders its crown to a throne called grace.” Before anyone asks, the answer is No, I did not receive a request to use the quote. Did I laugh when I saw it? I shouldn’t have but I did. Couldn’t help it.
As much as I enjoyed the relief laughter provided from stress, I’m obligated to point out that graphics of this nature fall into the category of what I call guerrilla decontextualization. It’s when images and words are taken out of one context and placed in another for a specific political purpose. Both Barack Obama and #JoeBiden recently have protested against such practices against them.
I first coined the phrase #GuerrillaDecontextualization when writing for AXS Entertainment about Mr. Obama’s second run for the U.S. presidency. Because the goal of this graphic is laughter, it may arguably be considered less hostile or violent than some campaign ads now running on TV. In any event, it’s always a good practice when possible to acknowledge original sources. That’s something I will happily do concerning the artist featured in the next post:
PART 2 OF 2-for-2 Facebook Shares on Love and Laughter in Our COVID-19-Challenged World.
Aberjhani is author of the forthcoming GREETING FLANNERY O'CONNOR AT THE BACK DOOR OF MY MIND, Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (the latter with Sandra L. West). He is also creator of the Silk-Featherbrush Artstyle.
The United Nations may have officially tagged 2017 as The Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the Chinese dubbed it Year of the Fire Rooster, but I am inclined at this point to declare it: Year of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
Sounds a little awkward I know. However, it is fairly accurate and the poetic quality lends to the description an aspect of hopefulness as opposed to a smell of certifiable doom.
The tones of the Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices range from the humanely compassionate and passionately engaged to the apathetically detached and dangerously dictatorial. They include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:
Add to the above chorus Native Americans and committed environmentalists taking a stand against the on-again Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, women across the globe convinced they have been cheated of their time to shine in history, and Millennials struggling to find the right balance between trust placed in technology and the flaring passions of their innate humanity.
In truth, members of any number of various demographic groups who thought they had gained solid social and political ground on which to stand for the rest of their lives during former U.S. president Barack Obama's administration are now screaming "Oh hell no!" as the new commander-in-chief --doing exactly as he promised to when campaigning for the job--steers America toward the far right.
Allowing Ourselves to Hear Each Other
Probably the biggest mistake anyone can make when wishing for his or her voice to be heard and respected is to ignore the voices of everyone else. That observation helped drive the launch and growth of the Creative Thinkers International (CTI) online community 10 years ago.
The sharing of visions and voices for the purpose of inspiring unity in a world turned morbidly cynical by 9/11 was what made the community possible and drove it to thrive for nearly a decade. At a time when hatred threatened to permanently erase the potential for any meaningful cooperation between cross-cultural populations, Creative Thinkers International demonstrated the exact opposite: unity in the name of shared humanity.
The glorification of hatred is predicated on a foundation of fear-induced ignorance venomous to haters and those they believe they hate. Without awareness of root causes inflating their fears, prejudices, and destructive actions, it is easy for someone such as an alt-right terrorist, or a jihadist more faithful to a love of violence than love for Allah, to misinterpret aggravated frustrations as saintly devotion. Given the chance to do so, their own hearts can provide the insight necessary to correct themselves.
For Creative Thinkers International in 2007, allowing ourselves to hear each other and work together to identify the common ground on which we could build trust and cooperation was a matter of working to either: 1) sustain humanity; or 2) watch it simultaneously implode and explode. It is not so different at this 2017 moment in history when words like "polarization," "fake news," and "alternative facts" shape stories heard, viewed, and read every day.
Most people understand achieving unification is more complicated than sticking labels on entire populations and trusting in bias or bigotry to solve the world's most existential dilemmas. Many, however, do not bother to consult any kind of discerning social or political analyses of the turmoil raging around them like the very real tornadoes that slammed New Orleans East on February 7, 2017 (twelve years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused historical damage from which the city is still recovering). To them it is a simple matter of opposing dichotomies: good versus evil, white versus black, the past versus the future, the aged versus youth, East/West, Christian/Muslim, nationalism/globalism, and so on.
What does it take for us to hear each other clearly enough to not only respect what is being said but understand that often the concerns of one group or individual mirror those of "the other." How do we recognize and remove the most unyielding roadblocks to harmonious coexistence between nations and communities?
We begin by acknowledging the reality of the need to do so. We begin by setting aside denials of truth blazing like wildfires right in front of our faces.
In addition, for example, to xenophobia and cultural bias, we know the so-called wealth gap and insufficient education all fall in the same category of oppressive strategies that do not work. We know also that a predatory instinct prompts some power-brokers to use divisiveness as a tool to manipulate social unrest for personal financial benefit. That is a sadly-cruel non-alternative fact we are able to improve with the kind of empowered consciousness represented by the 2017 Rising Tide of Multicultural Voices.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Trends in demographic shifts, progressive grass roots movements aimed at correcting blatant social injustices, and social media have had transformative effects that strongly encourage revisiting and reflecting on images of Black men's realities in 2017. The prototypes identified in "The Many Ways of Looking at Black Man" are still important. They have, however, expanded considerably.
Signs of Our Changing 2017 Times
Both before and during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the 1940s gifted African-American actors and performers like Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson at times left the States to find outlets for their talents where they could work without the hindrances of extreme racism. In 2017, that scenario has reversed as performers of African descent from countries outside the U.S. make their way to Hollywood, Broadway, and central strongholds of hip-hop to reap the financial rewards of professional gains made during Blacks' historic struggles for equality.
When giving interviews about his 2013 Academy-award-winning film, 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen Afro-Britain noted he was able to adapt Solomon Northup’s book for the screen as successfully as he did because of the Transatlantic slave trade common to the history of Black people on different continents in the western hemisphere. That simple acknowledgment underscored an aspect of African American men’s' identity often overlooked: that African Americans are also members of the African Diaspora, or, if you will, African Diasporans. Despite the United Nations-endorsed 2011 International Year of People of African Descent, the profound implications and potential of the McQueen's observation is routinely overlooked.
In addition to McQueen, actors David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, DelRoy Lindo Del, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are only a handful of British actors of African descent whose artistry has been employed to dramatize interpretations of African-American men's lives. Such interpretations have ranged from Elba's portrayal of druglord Russell “Stringer” Bell to Oyelowo's acclaimed performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay.
Echo Kellum's recurring role as Curtis Holt, a gay Black man married to a Latino on the hit television show ARROW, reflects an aspect of one population subgroup which many in the larger community still have extreme difficulty accepting. Yet, so far as popular television series go, Jesse L. Martin's role as Joe West in The Flash is no less a challenge to stereotypes and assumptions. As the Black adoptive father of a White son––Barry Allen (a.ka The Flash, a.k.a. actor Grant Gustin) who is involved in a romantic relationship with West's biological daughter Iris (Candice Patton )––his is a comic-book world where race is defined not so much by color as by those who have super powers and those who do not.
The Obama Legacy Effect
In his farewell addess, President Barack Obama quoted the late great novelist Harper Lee in which her character Atticus Finch states the following in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Finch's words may contain the wisdom necessary to help members of an increasingly diverse democracy better support one another as Americans rather than continually battle each other as cultural and political separatists. The president also wisely pointed out the need for African Americans to recognize the value of adopting the following practice:
"...Tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change...." (Barack Obama)
Mr. Obama's commentaries on race and the American identity over the past nearly 10 years have not brought about an end to racial divisiveness or violence in the country. But they have played a major role in helping to decrease the magnitude of assumptions and racial bias that seemingly prompt the dismissal of Black folks' lives. His two-term presidency has allowed Americans and citizens of the global community to experience a black man as a "leader of the free world." That singular comprehensive achievement surpasses any categorical way of looking at African-American men that would have been considered possible in 1997.
If, however, someone did feel inspired to duplicate "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" with fresh 2017 faces, it would be easy enough to do with another seven individuals such as: Chance the Rapper, Colson Whitehead, T.D. Jakes, Semaj Clark, Jay Z, Michael B. Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Their celebrity or non-celebrity status would not really comprise the core issue. The main point would be a definitive demonstration that as catastrophic as violence and oppression have been in our lives, they have not and will not erase the most beautiful and essential truths represented by our stories and realities.
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Since the publication of "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" special feature story in ESSENCE Magazine, November 1997, perspectives on men of African descent in the United States of America have evolved to cover a lot of ideological territory. That observation rings as true for everyday citizens of the country as it does for mainstream media, in which we have seen a gamut of extreme images, sometimes horrifying bloody, sometimes wonderfully inspiring.
The atmosphere of combativeness generated when the country's President-Elect, Donald Trump, chose to castigate civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) for exercising his right (some might say duty) to voice concerns over political legitimacy, removed any doubt that a lot of work still needs to be done where race relations are concerned. In light of the increasingly disturbing violent deaths of African-American men, women, and children over the past few years, prompting me to wonder if their names inexplicably would soon join the others, and in light of unconcealed attempts at disenfranchisement, an industrial prison complex that gorges itself on Black men's lives, and other irrefutable factors, "The Many Ways of Looking at a Black Man" takes on new and powerful significance in this year marking the 20th anniversary of its publication.
Among other things, it is also, as Black History Month approaches, one more reason to think back with gratitude for the leadership which Susan L. Taylor, now founder/director of National Cares Mentoring Movement, provided as editor-in-chief of the magazine for some 20 years. In the noted classic issue, she reminded readers of this: "Whatever parcels of power we claim today were not surrendered to us willingly or without long and painful struggle. That struggle continues because our oppression continues..."
Nevertheless, the dominant theme for the occasion was more one of celebration than protestation. As such, the following description of the African-American man is from the magazine's contents synopsis and introduction to the original feature:
"From sexual icon to warrior to caretaker--he is our black man. In this annual men's issue, we explore how he handles power, privilege and pain... He is many things to many people: husband and lover, father and son, brother, friend, sex symbol and political nightmare, crossover icon and business mogul..."
Those bright powerful noble words make a poignant contrast to the vivid horror of Black men's and boys' bodies falling in American streets to the repeated blasts of gunfire. That does not mean they are no longer relevant.
On Timelines and Parallel Conditions
We know in 2017 that how Black Men are perceived, perceived, or guerrilla decontextualized, is extremely important because of the various circumstances and events that have led to their deaths, or incarceration, in more instances than anyone can accurately count.
Alleged perceptions of unarmed black males as immediate threats to armed policeman's lives (or a would-be policeman in the case of George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin) has resulted in numerous deaths declared "justifiable" under Stand Your Ground laws. Stunningly, Edward Lewis, who in 1997 was publisher of ESSENCE and CEO of Essence Communications, Inc., wrote in the November issue:
"Some victims of police brutality don't live to tell about it. They die from bullets and blows and choke holds that are found--upon review by higher authorities--to fall roughly within acceptable guidelines. Others, who seek redress, often find their paths blocked."
Could not Lewis's words written 20 years ago have been penned just as easily in 2017? Think Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray,Terence Crutcher, Walter L. Scott, Sandra Bland and, sadly, many more.
A Few Thoughts from Trevor Noah
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.