To Be Here October 16, 2007Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.
I used to imagine that my brain had its own set of parents seperate from those people who gave me my face. I imagined that those parents were James Baldwin and Audre Lorde…so I painted my window frames with sentences I stole from them. I wrote their insights on toothpaste and asprin bottles. I started every essay with a quote from one of them and I brought the sacred texts (Collected Essays of James Baldwin, Collected Poems of Audre Lorde) with me in carry on bags to everywhere. My love for Lorde and Baldwin was heavier and a million times more valuable than anything that I owned. It is a wonder to me that James and Audre aren’t the only authors we’re reading in this class at all. But here we go.
I’m still not over my first encounter with James Baldwin on video. The technique was the same (repetition, pentacostal rhythm), the outrage was the same (unblinking, indelible) and the message was the same. “Love is the only thing that can save us. Love is the only thing that we have.” Baldwin was screaming, his eyes themselves were about to fall into tears. He was railing against the murder of the girls in the 16th Street Baptist Street church…blown to bits “In a church. On Sunday morning. In a Christian nation,” he said, “and we do nothing!” And I recognized my own definition of the sacred scared and the political and the possible. James Baldwin never blinked. He never pretended things weren’t as bad as they were. He saw the deadliness of the American status quo every second and still he was surprised, and never did he accept what he himself had prophesied and still he formed his mouth into the word love. Desperation and hope can be the same thing.
The essays that you will be reading by Baldwin were mostly written in the late 1950’s and they are about what it means “to be here”. Baldwin is famous for being an black American writer in exile, but always present to the urgency of American politics. For Baldwin to even identify as American as often as he did is bravery worth monuments. As you read his essay on what it means to be an American (a distinction he learns or sees from across the Atlantic) think about who you are? And when? When are you American? When are you Southern? When are you African? If ever. What of the political moves with you, replicates itself through small battles in your chest…
As you read Baldwin’s essay on his “home” Harlem meditate on what it means to be trapped. What it means to be home. What it means to be gentrified away. What place marks the stopping point of your soul? What map reflects the limit of your imagination. If Kameelah asks, “what is the choreography of death”, let us ask ourselves about the geography of survival. What does it look like. What are the building? (Only a few years later June Jordan would create an architectural plan for Harlem designed to make love, hope, thought and health more possible. If you have been to Harlem you might have noticed that this plan has not been implemented.)
Audre Lorde looks different in every picture. I think that means that Audre Lorde grew and grew, I think it means her face, like her vision was incompatible with a box, I think it means her defiance was successful. By the time Audre Lorde wrote “Scratching the Surface: Notes on Some Barriers to Women and Loving” it was a decade after “Nobody Knows My Name”, black people on the African continent had waged and were waging irreversible revolutions. Take some time to contrast and compare Baldwin’s use of Europe as a place for a different vantage point, and Lorde’s use of particular tribal practices in Africa to disrupt the binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality, to open possibilities for what could be natural and freedom making for black people…remember that Lorde is speaking in the language of, but away from the limits of black cultural nationalism as it was being practiced at the time.
Whereas Baldwin is interested in the dynamics and relationships between different groups of people that he can name (between Black people and white people…between Americans and Europeans…between the American Negro and the Algerian subject) Lorde is interested in what happens “Between Ourselves”….how does the practice of “lesbian baiting” foreclose freedom WITHIN a black intellectual community (Lorde first published this essay in The Black Scholar)? And what is at stake. I see this essay as a study for what Lorde will express in the poem Need (which we read already…but which she wrote later) and for what she will express in Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger. I love the fact that the title is honest. In this essay Lorde scratches the surface of something that she will deeply inhabit and investigate in her later work. She kept that promise. What does Lorde teach us about how we can lovingly and critically inhabit a struggle that we are IN.
I’m glad you’re here. Let me know what you think.