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
I considered myself exercising patience and restraint when I resisted paying additional shipping fees to receive my order of Barack Obama’s bestselling book, A Promised Land, just one day after it came out on November 17, 2020. Having opted for the longer arrival time of approximately 2 weeks at the much cheaper cost of “Free Shipping,” I did not expect to receive the book until either the end of November or early December. So imagine my surprise and #gratitude when it showed up November 19, just 2 days after the release date.
There’s no question A Promised Land is one of the most significant, if not THE most significant, memoirs of the modern era. Because of Mr. Obama’s direct involvement with public events which have shaped much of America’s and the world’s history in this first half of the 21st century, it could not have been otherwise.
A Parallel Literary Journey
In the photograph above, I have placed A Promised Land between 2 of my own most recent books: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah and Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. The reason is not because I megalomaniacally imagine myself to be as famous or influential as the 44th president of the United States of America, but to commemorate a parallel literary journey through some extraordinary shared history. It is also my way of having a little social distance holiday fun with the great man himself.
Upon his election to the Oval Office 2008, I wrote the first (“There upon A Bough of Hope and Audacity”) of several poems about Barack H. Obama’s historic achievement. During my time as a national cultural arts columnist for AXS Entertainment, I wrote a number of articles documenting responses to Mr. Obama’s first term as president (with now #PresidentElect Joe Biden as his vice president). The proliferation of what we now frequently refer to as disinformation and misinformation prompted me to coin the term guerrilla decontextualization for the extreme nihilism directed against him and his family. Many Americans were not certain he would still be here to write and publish this book. The fact that he did endure to tell his remarkable story in A Promised Land is something totally worthy of celebration and gratitude.
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020-2030
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.