September 16, 2019

I Am Not Your African American

By Isiah Smith | April 1, 2017

It would have been a gas to sit on a pillow beneath the womb of Baldwin’s typewriter and catch each newborn page as it entered this world of ours.                                                            – Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

The last time I saw James Baldwin, he was on stage reading from his collected works. It was April 28, 1986 in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The law firm that employed me was across town, and many taxi drivers were reluctant to pick up a well-dressed black man wearing thick glasses, even if he was carrying a stack of books in one hand and an attaché case in the other (some of the drivers who passed me by looked a lot like me). Despite these minor inconveniences, I managed to take my seat moments before my literary hero took the stage.

He strode across the stage like he was royalty, which of course he was, and he moved like he already owned the place, which of course he did. His large, inquisitive eyes held an ineffable sadness as he stared intensely at the sea of faces awaiting him. He seemed genuinely surprised that he had drawn such a large crowd. His star no longer shone so brightly in 1986; his popularity had taken a beating over the last decade, some black Americans going so far as to claim, as Eldridge Cleaver had, that he was a traitor to his race because he loved white people too much. But to the restless and adoring faces in the Coolidge Auditorium (mine included), he was, if anything, more revered than ever. His words were never more desperately needed than they were that long ago spring day in the city of despair.

Ironically, given his countrymen’s disenchantment with him (some even referred to him derisively as “Martin Luther Queen”), in 1986 he was more beloved in France than in the United States. Earlier that year, France saw fit to bestow upon Baldwin one of that country's highest honors when he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor. Home is not always where one was born, and the people closest to you don’t always look like you. We all, at some point in our lives, find comfort in the kindness of strangers.

I started reading James Baldwin during my freshman year in college. Still a teenager, I felt adrift, confused and without a firm plan for my life. I found myself in college competing with kids who did not look like me, kids I had been taught were smarter than me, classmates who assumed, without tangible evidence, that they were superior to me.  To my great surprise, I found these to be not only lies, but also demonstrable and damnable ones. Throughout all this, Baldwin proved to be my guide through the fog of self-doubt, and the high tyranny of low expectations.  With Baldwin’s eloquent words ringing in my ears, I fought my way out of the suffocating confusion about the world and my place in it.

No one around wrote like Baldwin, at least no one I had ever read.  He was a fearless and intrepid guide, his sharp pen wielded like a machete cutting through thick under brushes of racism, homophobia and man’s inhumanity to man. He declared to the world, “I am not your [negro], I am a man!”

And so it happens that, once again, the world has caught up with Baldwin’s lonely voice and begun to share his incisive vision. A new movie, “I Am Not Your Negro,” a cinematic and kaleidoscopic glimpse into the mind, life and times of this great American voice, recently opened to wide acclaim. A companion book of the same name is a bestseller.

Fifty years after I grasped the life-saving magic that poured from Baldwin’s prose, turning poison into medicine, I can’t resist looking back, and wondering how, as he himself wrote shortly before his death in 1987, “How I got over?” What would he think today of how our time has curled back on itself, turned around like a snake swallowing its own tail? How would he have reacted to President Obama’s election? Would it have surprised and amazed him as it did millions of Americans? What would he think of the current occupant of the White House, that man without a conscience? Would he see it as a predictable and natural reaction to the election of America’s first black president?

Would he grow disheartened to read about the increase in anti-Semitic and racist incidents flaring up in cities across America?

Today in America there are echoes of James Baldwin’s eloquent voice rising all about us. We can hear it in the surging tides of resistance and struggle raging across the land following the last election. Diverse and vocal groups of Americans have risen up and declared opposition to what they consider un-American actions perpetuated by those newly in power.

I can almost hear them shouting “I am not your ______(fill in the blank).”

These voices demand to be heard, these rights insist on being respected, and thus silence is not an option. The voices of dissent are like poetry, and as Adrienne Rich has written, “Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”

James Baldwin spoke for a generation of Americans who demanded the right to speak for themselves, to define themselves, and claim their rightful place at the table. 

Leaders who ignore this do so at their peril.

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a former newspaper columnist for the Miami Times. He worked as a psychotherapist before attending the University of Miami Law School, where he also received a Master’s Degree in Psychology. In December 2013, he retired from the Department of Energy’s Office of General Counsel, where he served as a Deputy Assistant General Counsel for Administrative Litigation and Information Law. Isiah lives in Traverse City with his wife Marlene.

 

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