Invoking James Baldwin: When a People is Isolated in the Sights of Hate

Actor Liam Neeson is in the news this week after having told an interviewer that he understood and could draw on the deep, primal urge for violent revenge because he had felt this nearly forty years earlier when a close friend revealed that she had been brutally raped.  Neeson also immediately told the same interviewer that within a few days of seeking an opportunity to act on his race-focused rage, he “came back to Earth,” and was horrified and deeply ashamed of what he had felt and of what he had nearly done.  For the last several days, he has dealt patiently and humbly with dozens more interviewers who want to focus on the rage, rather than on his shame–and on what that shame could teach any of us who, in dormant or wakeful rage, have trained our assault sights on a people, rather than on a particular guilty person.

Listening to Neeson, I keep hoping someone will invoke the great James Baldwin, whom I believe would, if he could, lay a hand on the actor’s shoulder and say, “I understand.”    Many years ago, when I was writing an essay about a similar, shocking rage and the shame that followed, I remembered how Baldwin had whispered in my ear.

Here’s a passage from my essay, “Notes of an Expatriate Daughter,” which is in my first book, Window: Stories and Essays.


In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin describes his own moment of breaking.  Though he was plenty aware that racial hatred was thriving—on both sides—he believed he could prove to the world how anyone, if he so chose, could rise above it.  He had discovered, he was sure, that if he behaved as though he was worthy of respect, he would get it, and he scorned as primitive and paranoid his father’s certainty that whites, no matter how outwardly decent they might appear, conspired to obliterate blacks.  It wasn’t until his first year out of high school, when he went to work at a defense plant in New Jersey, that Baldwin realized there were people who didn’t care how he acted, since all that mattered was that his skin was the wrong color.  Day after day, week after week, he was either openly rejected with “We don’t serve Negroes here” or patently ignored.  He was twice fired without cause, but because of his intelligence and presence of mind, was able to force the plant to rehire him.  By the third time, the plant management had figured out how to close all the loopholes, so he prepared to move back to his family’s apartment in Harlem.

On his last night in New Jersey, a white friend came in from New York to treat him to dinner and a movie.  Baldwin writes how he could feel the tension of that year pulling tighter and tighter from the moment the ironic title of the film, This Land is Mine, flashed across the screen.  Afterwards, he and his friend stopped into the American Diner where the counterman glared at Baldwin and hissed, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  In reply, Baldwin made a cutting remark about the diner’s name, but it wasn’t until he was on the street again that at last he snapped.  It was as though, he says, a cord connecting his head to his body had been severed, and so he walked on, without any plan or destination, every step mastered by body rather than mind, his only conscious desire “to do something to crush the white faces, which were crushing” him.

Moments later, he pushes through the doors of a swank restaurant, sits down at the first vacant table he sees, and waits until a frightened waitress approaches and whispers, somewhat apologetically, “We don’t serve Negroes here.”  Wanting to wrap his hands around her throat, he pretends not to have heard her, willing her to come closer to repeat the phrase.  When she doesn’t, he grabs a water pitcher from the table and hurls it at her, but she manages to duck, sending the pitcher crashing into a mirror behind the bar.

Suddenly awake to what he has done, he runs for the door and with difficulty escapes the knot of men who have caught him and begun to beat him.  Once outside, his white friend, who has been waiting in the shadows, tells him to run, then misdirects the police, allowing Baldwin to slip away and get back to his apartment.

Over the next several hours, he relives the incident dozens of times, realizing that he could easily have been killed.  But he must also face, to his own horror, that he himself “had been ready to commit murder.”  He continues:  “I saw nothing clearly but I did see this:  that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”




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The Gift of Black Beauty

The Gift of Black Beauty

I was seven, my hands and stomach trembling together as they always did on Christmas mornings—especially when the package laid in my lap was a crisply wrapped rectangle, heavy for its size and thickness, obviously a book.  Other packages I tore into like a savage, but books I unwrapped slowly, sliding my fingers under the seam of the wrapping paper, caressing the surface of the still-hidden book as if I could read Braille.

At last I pulled away the paper and saw a magnificent black horse rearing up into the golden light that bathed his vast, unfenced pasture.  His coat, so sleek it looked wet, the prominent white star at the center of his forehead, his mane and tail whipped by a wind that touched nothing else—all these details combined to express who this Black Beauty was: a proud, triumphant creature taking joy in his freedom.

It was the perfect gift for little me, for I loved books and I loved horses, but I didn’t have any way of knowing how my love for Black Beauty would shape my life.  All books before this, I realize now, had been storybooks—simply plotted happenings, sometimes in clever rhymes, but nothing that made me feel anything stronger than amusement.  Reading Black Beauty, I cried real tears, many times, and when I finished, I read it again and again, finding I craved the feeling of being pulled by words through delight, heartbreak, and all the emotions in between, ultimately to a deep contentment I could carry with me, reflecting on what Black Beauty had learned: that terrible things happen sometimes, beyond our control—like a stumble in a rut—and change the course of our lives; that no matter how hard we try to hold our heads up, to be good and noble and kind, we don’t always get the treatment we deserve or deserve the treatment we get; that genuine triumph comes only after trial, and that nothing matters so much as knowing and holding onto our true selves.

Though I’m sure at seven I had never heard the word literature, I know now that reading Black Beauty burst open the seed of who I am—the lover of literature and the writer—all of it the gift of a horse who never lived, but who lives always.


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Song of the Groundhog

When you find yourself envying a groundhog, you need to take stock.

I realized this last week when I spotted the sweetly chubby fellow contentedly browsing on the leaves of the viola carpeting my back yard. He took his time, examining three or four leaves for each one he munched while meandering around my deck and beneath my apple tree, which delivers a hearty crop of small fruit in June to delight the neighborhood squirrels.

I had emails to answer, lectures to prepare, student manuscripts to read, a journal to edit, and committee reports to write—all the work that, during an academic year, perpetually replenishes itself before one can get through even half the stack.  Including weekends, I hadn’t taken a single day off in eight weeks—unless I count the Friday I returned home from a speed-run to the grocery, sat on the couch to watch the midday news, and fell asleep for five hours.

I didn’t have time to linger at the window watching the groundhog—there was too much work waiting, ten or twelve hours’ worth just to be ready for the next day—but I lingered anyway, wondering about the nature of the groundhog’s pleasure, what the undersides of the viola leaves smelled like, and if they tasted sweeter when mixed with the flavors of the saturated earth.  I wondered how long he had been living in my yard—I’d never seen him before—and if he’d found himself a weary traveler after crossing so many treeless, close-clipped lawns, relieved and joyed to come upon a space allowed to go wild (to the dismay of the neighbors), where walls of honeysuckle cover chain link and most of the trimmed and fallen branches are thrown into stands of scrub grass as natural shelters.

I envied the groundhog because he seemed whole, fully body and fully spirit, and I longed for some slow, gray, after-the-rain morning when I could heed Walt Whitman’s (and, it seemed, the groundhog’s) call to “loaf and invite my soul.” A day, perhaps, when I could swing in my hammock chair reading for a while to quiet my mind sufficiently for me simply to listen, first to the sounds of the trees, the birds, the squirrels, and maybe even to the slow rustling of the groundhog in the viola—and then to the footfalls and whispery voices of the characters who have been flitting in and out of my mind for months, wanting me to follow, listen to their stories, and start writing.

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Workings of Messy Writing Mind

>This morning, after a reader and aspiring writer emailed me to ask about my writing process, I recalled this post from a few years back.  Still true.<

I’m a messy writer.

I’ve always known that–but I’ve also made it a habit not to think about how messy, since sometimes just seeing the mess can be so terrifying it’s paralyzing.

I may be the writer’s equivalent of a hoarder–lots of bits thrown about all over, stuffing every space, entirely disordered, but, despite its seeming unlikely I’ll use any one thing or even notice it again, I can’t make myself get rid of it.

This afternoon, too weary to keep writing–since my messy mind kept me up nearly all night struggling through issues of point of view (it’s a writer thing)–I made some working notes for myself as triggers for the next scene (already fully visualized) so I can start writing again early in the morning after, I hope, a good night’s sleep.

Those notes didn’t seem quite enough, though, as my mind kept on racing ahead, and I suddenly had a recollection of a possible timeline of some events in the story that I had scribbled down this past spring.  I could even see myself sitting in the local Indian restaurant, working it all out.

Here’s the messy part.  Most of my notes wind up written by hand in various notebooks, usually whatever notebook (of the many I have always lying about) that happens to be nearest.  If no notebook is handy, I’m liable to write on envelopes or napkins or the backs bulleted lists leftover from dull committee meetings.  I have even written notes on credit card receipts and on the insides of the little paper bands some restaurants use to bind their napkins.

You get the idea.

Once in awhile, I realize I’d better bring the notes into some sort of order, which usually means making one pile of notes related directly to whatever I’m working on, another for notes that are indirectly related, and another for notes that are for other ideas altogether.  These piles get a rough sorting, with, for instance, a few pages of continuous (failed) narrative stapled together and then joined by a binder clip with other tries at the same thing. Sometimes I use rubber bands, sometimes I’ll wrap an unlabeled file folder around a pile that has too many different-sized pages for a rubber band or a clip to work.  The result is still pretty messy–just a slightly more organized mess.

So, this afternoon, while I wasn’t exactly in the mood to sort through all the notes, I did want to find that timeline.  All I had to do, I thought, was find the right notebook–something that ought not be too hard, since I’ve mostly used only three for the last several months.

Nope.  Not there. Sort, sort, sort…the timeline seemed to have vanished.

I expected the next serving from my emotions to be panicked despair, but I surprised myself.  With my three great piles before me, not to mention my awareness of all the cutting and pasting and rewriting on screen that’s been going on for the past several weeks, I realized that my writer’s mind was actually very much alive and actively working during a period I had been thinking of as dormant and barren.  Little bits of the story that’s now absorbing my thoughts nearly every moment–awake or asleep–kept popping up, sometimes only as half a sentence, in two years of note-making.

I had to be there, in all those varied places, before I could be here.

And I also found another true comfort.   I’ve been a little disappointed at how few pages I’ve managed so far–pages worthy of keeping more than a day–but a conservative estimate of all my note pages tells me that for the twenty I have, I’ve written at least two hundred.

So, all that time I’ve been in the worst kind of a writer’s despair, thinking I wasn’t writing, but the truth is, I’ve been writing all the time.

Oh…and when I had fully absorbed and enjoyed this revelation, I remembered that I’d written out the timeline I was thinking of while reading a book for research, right in the margins while I was reading.

Now, if I could only remember which book that was…

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A Reading (and Writing) Room of My Own

A few months ago, someone asked me what my ideal reading space would look like.  At the time, I was in the thick of teaching my fall classes–and thicker into trudging through a bizarre and still-unidentified illness that left me, at best, feeling mired in the third day of the flu.  Hardly the best time for indulging fantasy–but, even so, the question kept popping into my head.

It’s mid-December now, the thicket of illness seems to have opened up into a field pocked with only a few low brambles and sole-sucking mud holes, and yesterday I posted my students’ semester grades.  I have just shy of a month before my spring classes begin, and, while I’ll need to start preparing for those classes soon, I’m now in that magic time when I’m free to give two, four–even eight–hours a day to reading whatever I want, just because I want to.

At the moment, like a siren song, the new translation of The Odyssey by Emily Wilson is calling to me.  Nearby are the books that have been waiting longer in my when-you’re-free-to-read-all-day basket:  Helen Simonson’s novel The Summer Before the War, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Nahid Rachlin’s memoir Persian Girls, and John Edgar Wideman’s book about the father of Emmett Till, Writing to Save a Life.  Depending on the weather and my evolving mood, any of these might be supplanted by a mad hunger to read something by one or more old friends: Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Galsworthy, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, or Jane Austen.

Before I can fully settle into my magic reading days, I need to finish up some Christmas baking and candy-making for friends and family–and tend to some serious house-cleaning–but while I do all that, dreaming of my ideal reading (and writing) space sends a pleasant sizzle through my brain.

First, I need a house smack in the center of about an acre, all mine.  This acre would be filled with tall shade trees, sheltering smaller, flowering trees and shrubs–cherries, white dogwoods, redbuds, apples, Bradford pears, azaleas, lilacs, and forsythia.  Beyond my shady, flowering acre, there would be miles of deep forest, so that when I looked out the windows of my reading room–almost nothing but windows on three sides–the only man-made things I could see would be three or four sets of sonorous wind chimes, my hammock swing, a picnic table, and two or three Adirondack chairs with footstools for when I wanted to read, write, or just think outside.  All those windows would seal well for the colder weather, but they’d open fully to sturdy screens so that, from March through October, I could feel the breeze, smell the trees, and hear the birds and squirrels, along with my wind chimes.  I’d need a gas log fireplace along the wall where the room attaches to my house, because I intend to spend more time in this room than any other, all year long.  (Remember: I’m in the realm of the ideal here, where there’s always plenty of time to read.)

The furniture is harder to see, but I’d need one great, wide, soft chair where I could sit with my feet pulled up or lie on my back with my head on one arm and my knees crooked over the other.  I’d need a couch, too, for those times when I want to sit up with my legs stretched out–a couch, with a firm base and squashy surface that doesn’t need extra pillows for comfort, and a deep seat, so there’s room to my left and right for my cats, when they’re not sitting on the window ledges chattering at the birds.  No other furniture except a bed for my dog; a couple of side tables for books, mugs, notebooks and pens; and a small writing desk, because reading always flings me back to writing.

As for the rest, a cushiony rug on the wood floor–because my dog likes to have lots of napping options–and, for gray days and night, a couple of lamps with bright, focused light,  which I could lower to shine right on my book without bothering my eyes.  For my my desk, I’ll need another a great brighty that spills a generous corona–enough to light my spread of books and papers without crowding the inevitable cat, who shows no surprise at discovering a nap-worthy sunbeam in the midst of darkness.


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