James Baldwin bequeathed to me—and to you—a language and a mission. That language was the language of the King James Bible transmuted by African-American vernacular speech into an instrument which gained the attention of all Americans, and I think the power of that language can be measured, can be gauged, because it was the last language which allowed so-called white Americans and so-called black Americans to look each other in the eye and pretend that we shared a country, and shared a destiny, and perhaps there was some way that we could get it together and inch this country forward from the horrors of its past. There has been no writer since, there has been no language since, in the literary community, that has accomplished that kind of magic. And for that alone we owe James Baldwin a great debt.

As a writer, I am tired of hearing Baldwin’s literary heritage chopped up into two pieces: the essays and the fiction. That sort of approach seems to amount to giving with one hand and taking away with the other, so we’re left with—what?—nothing, mediocrity. And that approach is only possible if one forgets that language is language, and good writing is good writing, and the borders that some of Baldwin’s detractors are attempting to trace, in terms of gender, in terms of race, in terms of class, are the very borders that are inhibiting their understanding of the fluidity of Baldwin’s language and his literary heritage. We don’t need to chop him up into kinds, we need to read, and listen to the music and the truth, because his mission was truth.

I remember James Baldwin as a colleague, as a friend. I remember him singing, and I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t remember that social being, because it was his life, it was his energy, his willingness to give—forget whether he’s right or wrong—his ability to be there, to be in the midst, to be present for all of us, that is his legacy. The eyes. Sitting across from him, looking into those eyes:

For James Baldwin

What can we say to this
this knife-edged air
this ice blocking streams
this bluesteel sky

How do we speak to you
who is our voice and
still now. Too patient to
laugh at us but smiling
yes yes
and the glass in your hand
your steepled knee
that elegant rag of many colors
swirling round your throat

Surely we knew
it would come to this
it always does.
Against fiery last ditch light
trees are x-rays of themselves
prisoners stripped, flayed to the bone

One black boy so scared
pee-pee bout to run down his pantleg
but he ain’t turning round
not today. No woman no
cry. Not today, momma. Gon tear that
old building down. With love
with fire and bare hands
and words like ten thousand
trumpets shaking hills
to their foundations

Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Poor boy long way from home
Been here—and now he’s gone
Been here—and now he’s gone

Think of little David
and his slingshot,
monkey shine signifier
blowing the Emperor away
We wait for the earth
to turn and tilt again
the shadow to lift

Rainbow wisdom of the elders
grandfathers, priests, kings
mother shuffle and warrior
woman strut and tons and tons of
babies still to come
our people our breath
your words
tell us the circle is strong
will not be broken
though the clay, the clay
my brother, is weak, weak
as a slave ship ought to be
Steal away.
Steal away.

We gather
in this frozen land
beside a river of mourning.
Saints chant: Be not dismayed
what ere betides

and you march in your billowing
black robes down the aisle
mount the pulpit and
shout us sing us bound
to glory man wherever that
might be wherever you are
now catching your breath and
testing it and amen how sweet
it must be free free
at last the cup to your lips
and emptied and full and
go on with your fine self,
child. Home.