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.”