To Change the World
Though I never met James Baldwin in person, and never even saw him at a public event, he is nonetheless to me like a father, or a beloved uncle, or mentor. That is to say, he is in my mind nearly every day, for the very simple reason that he was instrumental in creating my mind. And to the degree that my life and work have been shaped by my mind, especially in the way it is positioned with regard to race in America, James Baldwin shaped that life and work. Our actual lives never touched, except through his words, which is the most intimate touch of all. And his words expressed in those early essays which later became Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time entered my life at a time when I was a very young man, impressionable, confused, ignorant, and emotionally turbulent. Still a boy, actually, a well-intended white New Englander who had romanticized his sweetly naïve but pragmatically useless youthful idealism so that he could take pride in it, so that he could think better of himself, seated somewhat uncomfortably in a guilt-drenched 1950s white-boy garden of privilege.
However, although I had almost no idea of how to go about becoming either, I wanted to become a writer and a good person. I was a pipe fitter in New Hampshire then with no college and little travel—an unpromising situation. But thanks to my fuzzy, self-serving idealism, and my twin desires to become a writer and a good person, I was reading in those days—the late 1950s, early 1960s—periodicals like Partisan Review, where I read for the first time the mind-altering essay “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South.” And then the brilliant dissection “Faulkner and Desegregation,” troubling to me, for Faulkner had already been at work creating my mind for several years. I was also reading The Progressive (possibly the only person in Concord, New Hampshire, at that time, certainly the only pipe fitter), where I came upon “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” And then one unforgettable night, I read in The New Yorker, transfixed and transformed, the long essay that we remember now as “The Fire Next Time,” called there, “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
Baldwin’s words, his language, trickled into my ear, and became an inner voice that woke me suddenly from a long, mind-numbing, conscience-killing slumber. I can imagine, many generations earlier, a young New England boy reading Emerson for the first time, and feeling, thinking, as I did on first reading James Baldwin: Here was the undeniable, inescapable truth of the matter, and Good God, it was right in front of my eyes all along, and I never saw it. You felt as if you had been blind and were suddenly given sight, or foolish and had suddenly been given sense. It’s so easy when you are a white man in America to remain blind to what lies in front of you, and a fool. How ashamed, yet wonderfully liberated I was, when I read this sentence, for example, among many others: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow, and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
I could feel my heart and head clear together. My thoughts and pulse racing from premise to conclusion at the speed of light, it seemed, as I sat in my rented room in Keene, New Hampshire, now, and read not quite by candlelight, but in the dim glow of a bedside lamp, Baldwin’s elucidation of the so-called Negro student movement, the earliest manifestation of what soon became the civil rights movement—an elucidation that gave me leave, a few years later, to cleave in my own feeble way to the work too. “The goal of the student movement,” he wrote, “is nothing less than the liberation of the entire country from its crippling attitudes and habits. The reason that it is of the utmost importance for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not otherwise be able to see themselves as they are.”
I truly wished to see myself as I was, and to the degree that I have been successful in this, Baldwin taught me how. His aphoristic style, his mixture of high diction and low, the rhetoric of the pulpit and of the street, his willingness to take the universe personally, his uneasy relationship with Christianity—these are qualities he shares with Emerson, one of my earlier fathers, and in fact I believe that Baldwin’s essays can stand easily alongside Emerson’s. Because there lies, at the center of Baldwin’s thinking, the central fact of the American imagination, which is race, his essays in the end will go further toward the shaping of the American imagination than those of any other writer so far, and will do so for generations to come.
“You write in order to change the world,” Baldwin said, “knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” His heart was a target of opportunity, and he suffered terribly for it, but James Baldwin changed the world.