By Kam Carter
The first time I encountered James Baldwin was most likely in a list. The list came from the mouth of my mother, who would talk to me about Black thinkers as a preteen. His name was probably preceded or followed by those of Malcolm X or Gwendolyn Brooks or Angela Davis. When my mother realized that I was prone to writing, she exposed me to these minds. These were people one should know; this was my brain trust. I did not know until much later that I was a Black thinker too and that this is why these lists were paramount. And as I was being assigned mostly white writers in school, many of these names went uninvestigated. But unbeknownst to me, Baldwin crept into my head and stayed dormant for years until the second encounter.
When I arrived at Bennington I was beginning to understand that my Blackness was inextricable from my poems. I had spent most of high school purposefully evading writing about race. I first began to see that this was futile when, in a Q and A about a poem in which the speaker compares the addressee’s skin to a communion wafer, (bear with me), a white trustee asked me what it was like writing about dating white guys as a Black girl. People receiving my work viewed it as a sociopolitical artifact before viewing it as a poem. If I was going to be a writer, my work would be categorized as Black in the same breath as it was categorized as mine, and my arrival at this fact upended my paradigm. The timing of my newfound awareness was tricky. Just as soon as I began creeping toward embracing the omnipresence of my own Blackness, Blackness itself felt largely nonexistent in the physical space around me. Entering a shockingly white college in a predominantly white place, I was unsure where, how or with whom I could begin to examine some of my emerging realizations. Furthermore, the likelihood of there being another iteration of the communion wafer incident was 100%. Around this time, it came to my attention that there was a 2000 level class being taught on Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and it was suggested to me that I take it.
I have many distinct recollections from the class, chief among them being completely gutted by The Fire Next Time. I can also remember many of us collectively wondering, in the midst of a sickening number of brutal murders of unarmed Black Americans by police, if the state of our modern world was the Fire Baldwin prophesied so many years ago. Most clear to me is the first time we watched an interview with Baldwin. As he wildly gesticulated at this old white man on Dick Cavett, I was absolutely thrilled. His unabashedness. His clarity. I very quickly became obsessed, watching interviews online for hours. I then understood that I had been absolutely starving for a Black literary hero. My previous attempts to circumvent Blackness in my work came from an impulse to try to place myself in a lineage primarily dominated by white men who often felt so far away from me. I learned that these attempts in turn lead me to circumvent myself. Baldwin’s essays were mirrors. At least, they communicated to me that there was an untapped and vast world of writers that could serve as more reference points for me. (Second term of freshman year was also revolutionary; I found an infinite amount of Black female writers I could call on, and nearly exploded.)
Baldwin is to me what Tupac is to my younger sister. I refer to him as Jimmy as if we’re friends. I love nothing more than to watch his facial expressions as white people say outrageous things to him. I love nothing more than to listen to him speak as brilliantly as I’ve ever heard anyone speak, as certainly. This is not to say that we do not have ideological differences. I am suspicious of his near constant assertion that he does not hate white people. I agree that Christianity has done significant work to oppress in its own right, to convince Black people to endure hell on earth with the promise of a blissful afterlife. Unlike Baldwin, I am more accepting of religion’s abilities beyond functioning as a palliative survival technique. But every time I pick up Notes of a Native Son I feel like my humanity is actualized again and again.
Once a month or so, I re-read the last few paragraphs of “Autobiographical Notes”. When I first read the last two lines as an eighteen year old, I decided to adopt them as a sort of mental manifesto:
I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done. I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
Baldwin was perhaps the first writer to feel round, real and honest to me. I am captivated not only by his words but his existence in history. I have made a practice of placing myself among those names my mother gave to me as a child. To have ancestry is to have self. I know that for Black people, to discover a lineage is in part to affirm our existence in a world that actively attempts to obliterate it. I know that there was a world before me, and it was a Black one, and I belong to it. I know also that the world is before me now, and for me, for Black thinkers and Black people. There is no greater responsibility as an artist than to take the world and render it as it appears to you. I am indebted to Jimmy for teaching me that the world was mine to take.