Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tried Them on at the Gates of Hell

The 1963 birthday revisiting continues. Last week as I was surveying my bookshelves for a copy of slave stories from the Georgia Coast, I found another part of the birthday gift my family sent me while I was sitting in a house of studies in rural Minnesota. Inscribed:  “To Joseph Brown, N.S.J—for Birthday—September 5, 1963—from the Family.” It is in my mother’s handwriting. From the Family. My, what that simple line says to me, fifty years later.  The book was retrieved and sent to me by one of the dearest friends I could ever hope to have.  “Dear Joseph, Birthdays are appropriate occasions for reconciliation. Please accept this book from the “Society” as an apology for the ignorance of the former days . . . discovered this in the library. By returning it to you, I hope to express at least some understanding of its contents.  Happy Birthday.” [Editorial comments: “N.S.J”—“novice member of the Society of Jesus.” “Society”—internal shorthand for “the Society of Jesus”]

The book? Strength to Love, a collection of essays by Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining in the clearest language possible the truly life or death choice behind his theology of non-violence.  The friend? One of the first people to prove the possibility of James Baldwin’s understanding that a bonding occur between: “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others.” [Again, from The Fire Next Time]

In an interview published in The Black Scholar [reprinted in Conversations with James Baldwin), Baldwin puts it plain, as plain as he could be when his interlocutors would allow him room to soar like an eagle.  He is asked whether political themes play a role in his writing. Oh, the man reminds us all that he left the church but the church never left him: “The role of the artist is exactly the same role, I think, as the role of the lover.  If you love somebody, you honor at least two necessities at once.  One of them is to recognize something very dangerous, or very difficult.  Many people cannot recognize it at all, that you may also be loved; love is like a mirror.  In any case, if you love somebody, you honor the necessity endlessly, and being at the mercy of that love, you try to correct the person whom you love. Now that’s a two way street.  You’ve also got to be corrected.  As I said, the people produce the artist, and it’s true. The artist also produces the people.  And that’s a very violent and terrifying act of love.  The role of the artist and the role of the lover.  If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.  Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don’t see.  And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me.  No one wants to see more than he sees.  You have to be driven to see what you see.  The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love.  You can call it a poem, you can call it whatever you like.  That is how people grow up.  An artist is here not to give you answers but to ask you questions.”

My family sent me Baldwin and King. These men anointed me from afar, as a child in the wilderness is claimed for some task that will benefit the people. “Find the words and use them well. Speak honestly and tirelessly to those you love, even when they allow you ‘no name in the street’.”  That is all right, in the long run. “I told Jesus it would be all right if He change my name…” I never told the world it had anybody’s permission to call me anything but a Child of God.

King's acceptance of that name, “Child of God,” influences his writings in Strength to Love. His variation on the theme of consciously loving the other is to talk about having a “tough mind and a tender heart.” Both King and Baldwin start with an assumption concerning the dominating culture that is America eternally (or at least from then to now) about African American people. African Americans are, in the mind of the other, incapable of the “higher faculties” (as Jefferson claimed about Phillis Wheatley). But we actually do know what we are talking about, when we talk about racism, prejudice, violence, economic inequality, oppression, and abuse. We remain ignorant only at the risk of death. “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”  And for King, making America conscious meant forcing the guardians of power and domination to see the hatred that was soul-destroying for all concerned. Deciding to love the one who seeks to destroy you takes the “dogged strength” of Du Bois; the artistic genius of every singer and dancer and preacher and comedian and photographer and poet (traditional or contemporary) we have ever allowed to correct us. From Frederick Douglass to Richard Pryor; from Sojourner Truth to Nina Simone; from Bert Williams to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke; from Wheatley to Nikki Giovanni; we have always given birth to the poets to call us all to consciousness. 

But who are they today? And where do they prophesy and challenge us? What dismays me more than a little is that in the face of the rabid forces that refuse to admit the reality we all share, the artist/poet/prophets have gone underground or have become nearly mute in their utterance.  King demonstrates a pure joy in his rhetoric when he describes “softminded individuals.” (Ah, so, yes; he is a poet, too.  A purveyor of terrifying love.) “Softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears....The softminded man always fears change…For him the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea…Dictators, capitalizing on softmindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.” And then King introduces a reference that is as pertinent today as it was fifty years ago—and also eighty-eight years ago: “Adolf Hitler realized that softmindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.’”  

Leaving absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone who has picked up this book to read, King says, finally,”Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice….Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings…There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.  The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.” (Strength to Love, 2-5).
Young females shot and raped in Afghanistan for attending school. Children beaten, tortured and killed in Syria.  The lost children of the Congo. Orphans in Haiti. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant.  The Tea Party. The denial of essential validity for Barrack Obama. Sequestration.  Homeless veterans. Hungry children in the U. S. al Shabaab - a Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate group, murdering the innocent in Nairobi.

We know whereof we speak. We have always known that we began in hell and had to fashion our wings so that we could fly away.  Ah, but then, we – as profoundly as Melville’s Ishmael – “we have returned to tell what the end will be.”  “We know our wings are gonna fit us well…We tried them on at the gates of hell.”  Without love, for ourselves, our children and those humble enough to be conscious, we would have crashed long ago. Or believed that the fire was fatal and never tried to fly.

Who is there today to sing the truth-telling song we need, so that we can learn to move in the darkness? 

Monday, September 2, 2013

"Still Down at the Cross"

During the televised commemorations of the 50th March on Washington, while historical scenes of the first march were being broadcast, there was, in one excerpt, a brief moment capturing the crowd around the 1963 podium, with King at its center. Directly behind him was James Baldwin.

And from that scene the memory began.

Answering the question put to me in a radio interview about the 50th anniversary, “Where were you on August 28, 1963?” I told my interlocutor, “I was secure in rural Minnesota, at our Jesuit seminary. We had no regular access to any media (such as they were in 1963), so I didn't know about the March on Washington until my father sent me news clippings, for my birthday (in early September).”  I could have said more about that birthday package; but since we were talking about the March as it inevitably focused on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his speech, I did not let the memory spring forth during that interchange, fully-formed from my brow.

My father. My father sent me a birthday gift. My father sent me yet another installment of his never-ending tutorial on black culture and black manhood. The object carrying the power was a book. My father sent me The Fire Next Time, the two essays James Baldwin collected and published in January of 1963.  I was living in a building that had a total occupancy of nearly 250 men, located on 750 acres of reclaimed wetlands, surrounding a lake. I have no idea how many people lived in the nearby small town, St. Bonifacius. But I do know that I was the only black person anywhere in that vicinity. For the vast majority of the inhabitants of the seminary, the small town, the county, I was in fact the first and only black person they had ever seen. I learned a valuable lesson during the four years I lived in that place. Being born into a culture does not make one an expert in that culture. My father knew that; and so much more. Two or three times a year I would receive gifts from him: books and music, from Baldwin’s book to Billie Holiday’s music.  I did not know the desperate hunger in my spirit until the gifts arrived. 

My father’s voice had been a constant annotation of black history and culture from the time I began grade school. Pictures in magazines, stories in newspapers, performers on television all were contextualized by his interjections. There was no idle time, no period when I just existed without this dynamic. From Du Bois to Josephine Baker, to Earl Hines, to Emmett Till, I knew that people and events were supposed to matter to me. Because my father drew the map. But there in the seminary, all anew for the first time, I understood so much more of my father, in those few pages of Baldwin’s book. Our conversations over the previous years of interjection and elaboration had always been brief. He told me what to look at, listen for, and consider, when dealing with issues of race. He instructed me in names, dates and events. I listened. I doubt if I ever spoke during any of those lessons. I listened. But hearing in my head Baldwin’s voice, I was hearing once again my father’s tutorials. What James Baldwin said in paragraphs and pages connected me to my father. I knew immediately why my father sent me The Fire Next Time. If he could have told me all that was in his heart, he would have said just these things. Especially what is contained in “My Dungeon Shook.”

My father had been teaching me history, through music, through the performers we watched on television or in movie theaters; through the pictures in Ebony and Jet and The Chicago Defender. So, sparked by Baldwin’s presence in a film clip, once again, fifty years later, I again took up the book and read.

When he was sixteen years old Baldwin left the church (which he joined at the age of fourteen), he tells us, because he could no longer believe “that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven [he as a boy preacher] represented.” But he carried something powerful with him, something he scatters throughout every book he ever wrote. “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and rare.”  Oh, how my soul looks back in wonder, at how we (Baldwin and I; and my father and mother, to be completely honest) made it over, having to face the inescapable truth of the absence of loving-kindness in so much of what is called “church” in our world.  But what Baldwin fled, I joined. The zest and joy he remembered in his church, I remember in my family. The map of one’s exile may display different contours from that of another’s; but the ache of absence is common. Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind (the second part of The Fire Next Time),” became a letter to a region in my mind – written by James Baldwin and sent to me as an apostolic exhortation by my father.

When I first learned of the notion of Sankofa, I instinctively claimed it as the emblem of my work: to return to the past and bring forth what is needed for today and tomorrow.  To bring forth the old and the new from the treasure house of culture is the essence of all pedagogy. James Baldwin left the church in order to find his true calling. He became a witness, a prophet; spirit-possessed and frantic to be understood, he was Jeremiah and Amos and John the Baptist. And this is what I learned from the words of this prophet, to be renewed for every generation.  “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.  An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.  How can the American Negro’s past be used?  The unprecedented price demanded – and at this embattled hour of the world’s history – is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.”

America exists because of invented history. The New Eden could not be claimed until the original inhabitants of the garden were cast out or nearly exterminated. The New Jerusalem was constructed with the body-killing labor of enslaved Africans. The wealth bestowed upon the industrious and faithful was snatched from the hands and fields of the colonized at every ocean’s edge. The very faith that justifies the arrogance, cruelty and greed of the conqueror was plagiarized from the eldest cultures on the planet; and the custodians of those early systems of belief were “marked with the curse of Ham” and named, “barbarian.”

On that day in August, 1963, James Baldwin stood behind Martin Luther King, Jr.  Whatever he was saying at that gathering still whispers, these decades later. Referring, in this book, to W. E. B. Du Bois’ formulation that the problem of the 20th century was the “problem of the color line,” Baldwin sees that problem to be “a fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world – here, there, or anywhere. It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined.”

With a rhetorical eloquence that is the match of anything King said, months later, in 1963, Baldwin –in the noblest tradition of the great Old Testament prophets – calls all who hear him to a new level of conscious commitment to a “beloved community”: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”


My father believed that vision until the day he died. He sent me the scroll and bade me “take it and eat it.”  And I honor him and James Baldwin and Du Bois (who died the day before the 1963 March), by invoking the blood of our new martyrs, the young women and men lost to us by the corruption of our culture, to “dare everything” so that we can avoid the conflagration that will be “the fire next time.”