James Baldwin

James Baldwin

James Baldwin is a poet, an orator, and a best selling author of both fiction and non fiction works, but it's easier to just call him a master of words.

He's often mentioned when digging into civil rights era history, but when I was younger, I couldn't really relate because his pieces were way too complicated and wordy for me. It took a while, but this man has now become one of my go to voices for finding words to express my feelings and gives me words to understand my relationship to the society I find myself in.

It wasn’t until I watched a video of his debate with William F Buckley that his relevance really popped for me.

In it, he stands in a court full of white men and is asked to debate on if "the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro". Keep in mind that this is occurring at the height of church burnings, lynchings, and state sponsored executions of prominent figures in our community. That court room situation alone is triggering as hell for me and I can't even imagine putting myself in that situation. That's the beauty of James. He has an unshakable confidence that comes from knowing who he is and what is true. 

Toni Morrison introduced me to the concept of asking yourself, "who is the writer, writing to", and I realize that the figures I love usually speak to me about the world in a language that is familiar to me. They don't really focus on speaking to the world about me. That little tidbit of insight helped me recognized that sometimes the public figures speaking on the Black experience use their proximity with "Blackness" as a way to elevate their own position by communicating about it in terms that are accessible to those who are unfamiliar with it. They're speaking to everyone about being black, but not speaking to black people about being. Those people have their place, but it's a slippery slope. That's not a slope that James concerns himself with, and he can just as easily speak to the Queen of England as he can with Malcolm X and not code switch in the slightest.

James speaks to those within the experience and those without in the same tone. And somehow, he finds a way to explain it in a way that can be equally enlightening to both those who have lived it, and those who haven't. 

James is one of my Griots because he doesn't oversimplify or sugarcoat reality. He's not a preacher, or a motivator, he's a writer. He says that it's his job to write what he feels and has learned and to communicate his experience to the best of his ability. This man freestyles doctorate level essays every time he speaks and he's not flexing, he's just ensuring that his thoughts are communicated accurately. He's not usually trying to convince you to do anything, he's just trying to tell you what it is and make sure you get it. The problems he speaks on are incredibly complicated so it takes someone who truly understands themself to be able to tell you not just what they feel, but why they feel it. In that labor of finding the right words, he often finds a thread of truth that goes beyond his own experience and ties us all together when we realize, "Damn, that's exactly what it's like!". 

In His Own Words 

It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.

Here's one of our absolute favorite interviews featuring another one of our Griots, Nikki Giovanni. This is a gem of an interview and really gives you a look fo why this man is considered the voice of a generation.