My James Baldwin
I knew I was forgetting something this morning, y’all, and then I remembered: today is the birthday of the prolific and profound author, and just all around good human being James Baldwin! He was born August 2, 1924. He would have been eighty-six years old today.
In case you haven’t heard of James Baldwin, click here for a biography of him. He was not only a writer, but a Civil Rights activist. When I say, this community would not have made the strides it has without the work of James Baldwin, I am not playing with you.
If you read my blog post on Essence Magazine, the title was a riff off of a James Baldwin classic, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone. Click here for the original review from The New York Times of that book, written by the author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo.
Can it get any stranger, yet more fabulous, than a descendant of southern Italians who pens novels about the Mafia writing a review about the descendant of southern African Americans who pens novels about Black revolution?
I met James Baldwin once. I was fourteen and my mother and I went to see him give a talk at Emory University in Atlanta, where we were living at the time. On the way there, my mother casually mentioned that my father was friends with James Baldwin. I was like, Dang. Nobody tells me anything.
Sidebar: After my father died, I found out that he had lived in Greenwich Village while attending Columbia University on the GI Bill. And he was also friends with the writer Grace Paley–who also knew James Baldwin. In grad school Miss Grace became an unofficial mentor of mine, which I needed so badly. Miss Grace was one of the good eggs in this world, and she didn’t mind fighting for what was right.
She also mentioned when we met that she knew my father’s second wife. I thought she was making a mistake–after all, my father had only told us about two wives. So I called up my mama that night and I found out—at the age of twenty-seven—that my daddy had actually been married three times. I was like, Dang. Nobody tells me anything.
Anyway, at the Emory talk, Mr. Baldwin was on fire. Even though I didn’t have a real point of reference for what he was saying about race and politics, I felt a gut-deep reaction to his words. Afterward, we went up to talk to him, and he asked about my father. “And how is Lance?” My mother said, “He’s doing really well.” She did not mention that daddy was in North Carolina and that we had left him, so I took my cues from her.
And then it happened.
A young man came up behind Mr. Baldwin and draped a fur-collared camel coat around him. It was both dramatic—I mean, fur, okay?—and ordinary—because Mr. Baldwin just kept talking like nothing had happened. Here was a man who was clearly a brilliant intellectual, and a passionate revolutionary—though I didn’t really find that out until I started reading his work after he had died—and on top of all that, he was super-fly and fabulous as all get out.
Right then, I thought, That’s going to be me. I’m going to be a writer when I grow up.
So fast forward, eighteen years, to Winter 1999. I was taking a break from working that year, in order to finish my first book of poetry, which eventually became The Gospel of Barbecue, and I living in my mother’s back bedroom, which didn’t bother her in the least, but Aunt Edna (my mother’s sister) was talking smack like nobody’s business and the whole family was giving me the side-eye, like, “When you gone get a job?” So I was hustling, y’all, trying to figure things out.
I won a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire to finish the book, which was a big deal, though I didn’t know it at the time. The car that I was driving could barely make it to the grocery store and back without running hot, so I decided to take the bus up to New Hampshire from Alabama.
Let me just say, I will never do something that foolish again. When I think of the press of humanity getting off and on that bus over a two and a half day period, and how I held my pee-pee for hours and hours and hours, because I just didn’t even want to think about trying to go in that nasty toilet in the back of the bus—oh, Lord have mercy.
But I met some really great people. One was a brother who had just gotten out of prison after a fifteen-year bid. He carried his belongings in a black garbage bag and I never asked him what he had been in prison for, because I didn’t want to know. I knew if he said he had done something bad, I was going to judge him.So I didn’t ask, and in Charlotte, North Carolina when I saw that brother and his mama embrace and cry and keep holding onto to each other, it was a moment I will never forget. It remains one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed.
Another lady that I met on the bus—she must have been in her fifties–informed me right away, “I’m from Detroit and they call me ‘Fast Black. That’s what they call me.’” I said, “Well, alright then. Yes, ma’am.” Ms. Black proceeded to tell me how good she was at gambling—all kinds. Cards, slots, dice. And that she carried a knife, just in case somebody messed with her. She was a bad Sister—in the best sense.
I took a couple of books to read with me on that long bus journey, in between talking to folks, and one of them was The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I read it over and over while I napped and talked and listened. By that time, I dearly regretted telling my mother back in 1981 that I did not want him to autograph a book for me, because that was tacky.
When I arrived in New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony, they took me to my writing studio, which was really a cabin in the middle of the woods. It was called the Baetz Studio. I had a fireplace and a cute little bathroom and a desk and a single bed. I took a lot of naps in that bed after writing. I would write for a few hours and then nap from exhaustion.
Hanging on the wall, there was a “tombstone” of soft wood and a pen that we were encouraged to use, to write our names in the tablet to show that we had been there. So, I took the pen to write my name and that’s when I saw James Baldwin’s signature on the tombstone.
James Baldwin had been in that cabin. He had sat in that chair. He might have even slept in that bed—cause that bed was old as molasses, y’all. I am not playing with you. There’s the MacDowell group picture from 1954 up top. And click here to see Tayari Jone’s photo of the tombstone with James Baldwin’s name.
Now, for some folks, they will say, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like y’all kicked it.” But you know, we kinda did, in a strange way. This was at the beginning of my residency at MacDowell, and by the time I left the Baetz Studio, I had written fourteen poems–including the one about the brother just leaving jail and one about Ms. Black. I hadn’t even planned on working on a new book, but I wrote a third of that book up there in New Hampshire.
I thought I was there to finish the first one, but after a few days, I realized the first book was finished and so I started on the second on, which became Outlandish Blues. And I talked to Mr. Baldwin a lot—yes, I admit it; I am weird. I talk to spirits from time to time.
And I wore overalls every single day. I had seven pairs of overalls and I washed them on Saturday and then, I wore them all over again. My mother hated those overalls, and when I came back home to Alabama, she offered to do my laundry for me, and then behind my back, she threw out all my overalls. And then she gave me money to buy new clothes, on the condition that I could not buy new overalls. Mama said, “You are way too cute a girl to be dressing like a sharecropper. And besides, you are going to be somebody one day, so start preparing yourself.”
A few months later, Lucille Clifton chose The Gospel of Barbecue as the winner of the 1999 Wick Poetry Prize, and it was published that next year. In a way, I always think Mr. Baldwin had something to do with that. Or maybe not, but I still talk to spirits, just in case.