December 29, 2007

Vintage Baldwin
James Baldwin

Master Class – Featuring samples and excerpts from James Baldwin’s writing published between 1954 and 1968, Vintage Baldwin packs a mighty punch. From a letter in The Fire Next Time to Baldwin’s nephew written on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation:

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of
freedom one hundred years too soon.

From Nobody Knows My Name:

People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in
order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account
of American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone

The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence – the public existence – of say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare – at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare – and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few. A few have always risen – in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all of these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent.

The country will not change until it re-examines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom. In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride and folly, and the world shrinks around us.

… the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us comfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. It we ourselves were not so found of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.

The American writer, in Europe, is released, first of all, from the necessity of apologizing for himself. It is not until he is released from the habit of flexing his muscles and proving that he is just a “regular guy” that he realizes how crippling this habit has been. It is not necessary for him, there, to pretend to be something he is not, for the artist does not encounter in Europe the same suspicion he encounters here. Whatever the Europeans may actually think of artists, they have killed enough of them off by not to know that they are as real – and as persistent – as rain, snow, taxes, or businessmen.

… it is the writer, not the statesman, who is our strongest arm. Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.


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