Bearing Witness to the Truth

James Baldwin was among the most essential American writers of the 20th century.  Now, thanks to a new film about his life and work, called, I Am Not Your Negro, we can be assured that his influence will extend well into the 21st.

It may have been mere coincidence that this movie, directed by Raoul Peck, opened in Boston on the first weekend of Black History Month, but that doesn’t make the timing any less perfect.  After all, it was Baldwin—paraphrasing his hero Richard Wright—who observed, “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.  And it’s not a pretty picture.”  If you don’t understand that very basic truth about our country, you don’t know anything at all.

The good news is that—for several obvious reasons—you couldn’t have picked a riper moment to get yourself up to speed on the subject of racism in the United States.  To that end—and just as a jumping-off point—you could do a lot worse than to track down every word that James Baldwin ever wrote.

Though the man himself has been dead for nearly three decades, the force of Baldwin’s ideas has never been more robust or germane to our ongoing National Conversation About Race.  While there are many great writers today who’ve devoted their lives to the struggle against white supremacy in our society, they are essentially carrying on an argument that originated with Baldwin and his contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s—an argument that was, itself, adapted from the generations of black intellectuals who came before.  If the specific battles have evolved from one era to the next, the overall war has remained the same, with the forces of oppression on one side and the forces of emancipation on the other.  As we know, the good guys do not always win.

Among the leading luminaries of his time—the majority of whom he knew personally—Baldwin served as a sort of philosophical and temperamental way station between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X—an unhappy medium bridging the Civil Rights Movement’s righteous anger to its “better angels” restraint.  Like Malcolm, Baldwin was prepared to excoriate the entirety of white America for its crimes against black humanity, while, like Martin, he was also willing to give (some) white people the benefit of the doubt.  Not unlike our most recent ex-president, he could acknowledge that evil springs from ignorance as much as from malevolence, insisting all the while that even accidental racism can ultimately poison a society to death.

As a polemicist—most famously in The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son—Baldwin’s great strength was to follow the truth wherever it led him, and to do so without compromise or fear.  Fiercely confident in his convictions—all of which were borne from hard-won personal experience—he never hesitated to tell people what they needed to know, rather than what they wanted to hear.  He had little patience for making his readers complacent—including fellow African-Americans—opting to challenge their assumptions at every opportunity, never sure that the fight for racial equality would—or could—end happily for either side.

The secret to his success—the reason so many readers discover him and can’t let him go—is the unparalleled beauty of his words—the way he bleeds poetry from a mountain of pain and despair.  It’s one thing to possess a probing mind and a fiery heart—both of which he had in spades—but to pour it all out in evocative, lyrical prose—so deep, yet seemingly so effortless—is the mark of not just a great thinker, but a great artist, as well.

Indeed, when he wasn’t churning out furious copy on the breadth and depth of racial injustice, Baldwin was penning first-rate novels like Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, which tell passionate, sexy, tragic stories of social outcasts and were, for their time, extraordinarily frank about such taboos as homosexuality and mixed-race relationships.  Here, as in his essays, Baldwin felt liberated to portray the world as it really was, unburdened by cultural mores that supposedly made such honesty impossible.

And it’s not like this moral courage didn’t have a real cost.  As shown in I Am Not Your Negro, by the mid-1960s Baldwin became a major target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  All told, the Bureau’s file on Baldwin ran 1,884 pages and chronicled everything from his political activities to his sexuality—both of which were complicated, to say the least—and seemed to view him as a national threat almost on par with Communism and the Black Panthers.

In retrospect, there may be no higher honor for a writer than to earn a spot on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list—particularly when Baldwin himself always claimed to be an observer of the Civil Rights Movement, not an active participant.  That the FBI could be so terrified of a man whose only weapon was a typewriter should give real hope to those who doubt the elemental power of the pen.  That Baldwin’s homosexuality caused his own allies to view him with suspicion is a tragic irony that underlines why the fight for equality tends to be so goddamned messy and disappointing.

However controversial he proved in his own time—indeed, because of it—James Baldwin has long since earned a place of immortality among the brave black men and women who risked life and limb to secure a measure of dignity and autonomy in a society determined to give them neither.  To the extent that millions of Americans are unaware of Baldwin’s immense contemporary importance to the ongoing struggle against white supremacy, I Am Not Your Negro provides a superb introduction to both the man and the worldview he espoused.  If Peck’s movie leads more people to explore the primary sources—and, through them, to achieve a greater understanding of the meaning of a life inside a black body—it will count as an unqualified triumph of documentary cinema.  No Oscar required.

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Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.