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
Just before I took off running from Hurricane Matthew as it slammed the southeastern United States in 2016, presumably courtesy of the still-raging global climate crisis, I wrote the following notes on Duncan McNaughton's contemporary poetry classic, Valparaiso (Listening Chamber publishing, 1995):
As seen through the lens of this reader's experience of his work, McNaughton is a hunter and gatherer of significant meanings, and names, obscured by time and human negligence. Both a dissector and a sculptor of forms (as well as formlessness), a skillful translator of elusive moments crammed as much with pointless absurdity as with essential insights.....
Three years later, following a very narrow miss from Hurricane Dorian, I opened a copy of his SOMEWHERE IN THE STREAM (Blue Press Books, 2019). With this latest addition to the impressive and too often overlooked corpus of McNaughton's titles--now in fact time is the time for publication of a volume of his collected works--for some reason I felt a little less threatened by upheavals of physical-world conditions. Hurricanes seemingly indicative of negligent environmental stewardship, flaming tempests of political corruption, and suicidal addictions to war and hate fueling suicidal addictions to drugs and violence all took less of a toll on my personalized corner of the world. Maybe there was a reason for that.
A reader contemplating the title of this most recent volume of grace, wit, wisdom, and genius from someone often dubbed a poet's poet might suddenly ask: "Somewhere in the Stream" of what exactly? Potential answers--at least for those unfamiliar with McNaughton’s earlier works or unaware of his connections to genre-influencing poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Diane di Prima--could turn out to be as ambiguous or obscure as they might precise and informative.
Since the poet is McNaughton, stream of individual consciousness gives us one good possibility. So does stream of collective memory, or of human comedies, absurdities, tragedies, antipoetic ironies, and language. It makes sense also to consider the stream of life, or existence, in general. How it manifests, flows, diverges, halts, dims, or glows to the rhythms of its own self-determining frequencies with seemingly little, if any, regard for human intentions constitutes a recurring observance, if not an actual theme, in many of the 51 poems contained in this collection.
So why does any of this matter? Because McNaughton's sensibility is one which surfs brilliantly through history, layered philosophical concepts, and rhythms of multiple languages with startling ease to collect observations well worth the attention of Gen-Z, Millennials, Baby Boomers, and Traditionals alike. Tagging along gives the feeling at times of accompanying an interdimensional space explorer seeking confirmations of intelligence and civilizations outside boundaries of known planetary systems. Or popular literary conventions. As such, his poemized captain's log (if you will) documents the many strange contradictions of what it means to be human.
Read the short title poem at the volume's beginning and you are immersed instantly in a sense of intimate familiarity:
Always an empty space out
Here, space in the physical (on the page) sense appears to underscore prominence in the emotional sense. A thorough embrace of human intimacy, romantic and otherwise, unimpeded by space or time, is one of the great gifts of McNaughton's poetry--and also one of its respectable challenges. On a planet home to billions where so many still find themselves condemned to a strangling sense of alienation, the poem lets readers share in the luxurious comfort of knowing a place exists where one is always expected and always welcome. It allows the narrator to become anchored in affirmations of community tinted with soul-sustaining beauty.
This sense of community as represented in McNaughton's poetry has never been restricted to zip codes, national boundaries, or even a single period of history. It has always welcomed the voices of different poets and thinkers grappling with the frequently-cruel and yet often-humorous demands of existence itself. With that in mind, his poems may read as engaged conversations, private letters, public editorials, or notes to a singular self taking inventory of a singular life. Many of those "who matter" the most do indeed "drop in" for cameo appearances in the pages of SOMEWHERE. Among them are both historic and more contemporary poets and authors such as: Bill Berkson, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Jack Collom, Robert Grenier, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Jack Kerouac, Jack Spicer, Osip Mandelstam, Colin Christopher Stuart, Walt Whitman, and D.H. Lawrence--just to give a quick sense of the wide range of literary territory this astonishing title covers.
How a given society judges or misjudges some of the most powerful, if not necessarily most influential, voices humanity has produced is not always encouraging. In "AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS,"(caps McNaughton's) for example, the narrator observes:
The small man alone in the corner is
With Blake, one of the original titans of Romanticism, sitting ignored in a corner, the elephant in the room is the huge unasked question about our modern times. When an over-dependence on technology methodically shortens attention spans and ruling oligarchs pass demagoguery off as democracy: how wise it not to care about the sustained life-example of a poet-artist such as Blake?
NEXT: Floating along: A Review Essay on Duncan McNaughton’s Somewhere in the Stream Part 2
Article art graphic featuring black & white images of musician Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, author Pat Conroy, author & editor Susan L. Taylor, King of Pop Michael, poet & educator Ja A. Jahannes, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, actor Danny Glover, artist Luther E. Vann, and more. (Bright Skylark Literary Productions)
If you’re a regular reader of my national African-American cultural arts column, you may have noticed that I have not been posting articles as frequently as I once did. The reason is simple enough. Having reached a certain point in the research for my current book-in-progress (at least one of them anyway) I had to reduce as many additional writing obligations as possible to fully concentrate on completion of the work.
For me, this is the part of authorship when the lyrical muse sings and the creative pen dances. The greater bulk of the more rigid tasks of verification and documentation have been satisfied, and imagination may be allowed to take over the processes of narrative construction. The resulting musical flow of image and language stamp the work with its own unique identity. And its own self-defined meanings destined to merge with different readers’ interpretations of the same.
The Writer and the Times
I started the national African-American cultural arts column on July 13, 2009, with a story about the debut of Johnny and Me, Savannah author Miriam K. Center’s play based on her friendship with the late 4-time Academy Award-winning composer Johnny Mercer. That was followed by a profile of acclaimed artist Jerome Meadows. The next month, August, saw the launch of the controversial series on the trial (and eventual execution) of Troy Anthony Davis, convicted for the murder of Savannah policeman Mark Allen MacPhail. Not writing about Davis’s trial, to my mind, would have been a case of gross negligence. Doing so was one early indication of what readers would discover over the next few years: basically, I found it impossible to restrict myself (as asked to do) to the subject of “the arts” as pertaining to African Americans.
How could that have been likely for someone who had already chronicled the global multicultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance in the pages of an encyclopedia, and whose first novel featured a cast of post-Millennials on a parallel Earth? I could no more refrain from engaging political discourse within a column bearing my name than Zora Neale Hurston could have resisted writing black dialect or Franz Kafka could have ignored the absurdities of his existential dilemmas.
Collage of images from the National African-American Art Examiner pages. See here are: King of Pop Michael Jackson, the African-American Family Monument in Savannah, Georgia, author Octavia Butler, slain officer Mark Allen MacPhail, artist Jerome Meadow, author John Lennon, executed Savannahian Troy Anthony Davis, and others.
Moreover, how could it even have been possible in the era that saw such titanic events as these: the two-term presidency of Barack H. Obama, America’s first African-American commander-in-chief, the domino effect of the Arab Spring in 2011, the death of a global pop icon like Michael Joseph Jackson in 2009, the advent of civil war in Syria with its subsequent refugee and migrant crisis, the heart-rending terror of Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the astonishing triumphs of the Marriage Equality Movement, massive shifts in population demographics, and the end of diplomatic estrangement between Cuba and the United States. Just to name a few.
This is not, of course, to say that during the same period I considered the cultural arts any less important than national or international politics. It has been more than thrilling to share with readers through this specific platform essays on such topics as: the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, the life and legacy of Maya Angelou, the novels and ever-increasing relevance of Toni Morrison, reports on winners of the Nobel Prize, the enduring literary vision of James Baldwin, the annual global triumph of International Jazz Day, profiles of Kennedy Center honorees, and reviews of some of the most important films of our modern times.
Framing the 21st Century with Interpretive Journalism
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.