President Obama turned 50 yesterday, to birthday tweets from around the world and a serenade from Jennifer Hudson in Chicago. As the mother of three biracial children, it’s awfully hard sometimes not to get caught up in what Obama represents, no matter what I think of him as a president (and at the moment, I have no idea what to think of him as a president). To me, his election was a little bit like stepping up to a coin-operated viewfinder, like the kind you see at the Grand Canyon or the Brooklyn Bridge. I dropped my ballot into a slot, and for a brief moment (very brief, as it turned out), I could see up-close the majesty of something that in reality is so distant it can’t be contemplated: a country lifting itself up and over to the other side of this thing we call race.
But I wasn’t actually feeling the whole Obama-turns-50 story arc that much. Instead, I found myself thinking about another man whose birthday passed this week — someone who didn’t need to use the word ‘audacity’ in a book title, because his entire life was an act of protest and total disregard for conventional thought. I thought about the black gay intellectual expatriate activist James Baldwin. The Harlem-born writer would have been 87 on Tuesday.
Baldwin was relentless. He was a prophet and he was a laser. The dictionary defines ‘laser’ as a device that produces a highly coherent beam of light by exciting atoms to a higher energy level and causing them to radiate. Baldwin produced highly coherent, unflinching beams of light with words. He seemed incapable of writing a single sentence if it didn’t serve the purpose of telling people what was true, and what the difference was between that truth and the fictions with which we surround ourselves. So long as he could take pen to paper, he refused to allow the dilemma of race to live on the periphery of the American conversation — and he refused to allow it to be framed as a problem about black people or what white people had done to blacks. For Baldwin, from the auction block to the housing projects, it was a problem about white people and what they had done to themselves. He was a radical, but not in the way Al Sharpton (now behind an anchor desk at MSNBC) or Cornel West (now obsessed with his unreturned phone calls to Obama) fashion themselves as radicals. His brand of insight would not go over well sitting across from Bill Maher or Jon Stewart: To Baldwin, there was nothing funny about the state of America.
There have been a few biographies of Baldwin over the years. I’ve never written a biography of anybody, but writing about Baldwin sounds like a death wish: In fiction and nonfiction, he wrote about his life and everything he believed with beauty and searing honesty, and he did it to exhaustion. Below are a few excerpts from a collection of his nonfiction published last year, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin.
On the notion of a black president:
“Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too. It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose — it has not entered the country’s mind yet — that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”
On the problem of race:
“There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.”
On what black people want:
“Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses — let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because were so happy . . . But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”
On the blues:
“You’ve seen these black men and women, these boys and girls; you’ve seen them on the streets. But I know what happened to them at the factory, at work, at home, on the subway, what they go through in a day, and the way they sort of ride with it. And it’s very, very tricky. It’s kind of a fantastic tightrope. They may be very self-controlled, very civilized; I like to think of myself as being very civilized and self-controlled, but I know I’m not. And I know that some improbable Wednesday, for no reason whatever, the elevator man or the doorman, the policeman or the landlord, or some little boy from the Bronx will say something, and it will be the wrong day to say it, the wrong moment to have said it to me; and God knows what will happen. . . . What the blues are describing comes out of all of this.”