05-james-baldwin.w1026.h682.2x

Last week, on one of the many news programs to which I am addicted, I hear it is James Baldwin’s birthday. He would have been 91. Instead, he died in 1987 at 63.

I feel a twinge.

Sending me to my office bulletin board.

Where I find:

*A drawing by a 7-year-old Mexican guest last week, depicting Pati, Andrea and Angela next to a six-pointed star, a blue ball bigger than all three of us with a huge sun above decorated with a butterfly sticker.

*A faded photo of 2 yr. old Pat with my Grandma and Grandpa Browne. The taste of Grandpa’s homemade root beer sweetens my tongue.

*A card to “admit one” to see Toni Morrison on October 29, 1997, to a talk in Clowes Memorial Hall. Must arrive by 7:15 or seats will be relinquished.

*The inky footprint of Alice, my infant great granddaughter: “foot flowers” from her mother, granddaughter Elizabeth, on Mother’s Day.

Etc., etc.

Here it is:

A faded 3×5 index card with fifty years of history.

When I manage to get my fingernails underneath the pink plastic star thumbtack holding it up, the yellowed edge crumbles—past its prime, (like me) I hold it gingerly, feeling the many holes from earlier thumbtacks that weaken its once sturdy cardstock.

I read:

“that collection of myths to which white Americans cling:

that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes;

that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace;

that Americans have always dealt honourably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors;

that American men are the world’s most direct and virile:

that American women are pure.” (James Baldwin)

I recall the first time I read it—don’t know in which of Baldwin’s writings—and typed it out for my edification.

What bullshit it was, I thought, and yet, I knew some of it had seeped into my privileged white head.

Baldwin’s voice shocked me into the realization that there was more to racism than school segregation—a big deal then in my native Missouri. More chilling still—Strange Fruit, sung on two 78 albums I owned from Josh White and Billie Holiday.  At the time, I had no idea how widespread and recent lynchings still were.

Just this February in San Miguel, I learned from a PEN talk on protest music by Jon Sievert that black artists at the time pledged to include the song in their albums, over the protests of their publishers.

When I was 30, The Fire Next Time ran in The New Yorker, and burned another hole in my ignorance. By then, I was living in Indiana, home, I read with horror, to the largest Ku Klux Klan membership of any state in the Union.

I squirmed. As another Baldwin quote testifies:

Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.

Baldwin himself learned from movies, another powerful teaching medium:

It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers you are the Indian.

How much of who I am has been shaped by books, music and movies.

I give thanks for the gift of grace from the brave souls who put their words and music and pictures out there for the enlightenment of all.

And vow to keep reading, listening to music and going to movies.

Forever and ever.

Amen.