This morning I listened to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Raoul Peck, director of the truly marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro — I wrote about this a couple of posts ago, and continue to recommend that every person go see it. Raoul Peck is a very interesting man with his own fascinating history, and his interview gave me additional insights into James Baldwin, and also gave me another chance to hear Baldwin speak, since the interview included a bit of Gross’s interview with Baldwin in 1987. It’s astonishing to listen to someone with an original mind, it’s like breathing the freshest air (no pun intended there, really) after being in a stale, enclosed room of ordinary objects. Here’s the interview to make it easy for you to listen:
Baldwin had to leave America to learn who he was outside of the labels that were attached to him from birth, and the way he talked about that in the older interview, that he had to learn who he was, not what he was, gave me a new perspective. He was a genius at that; when he lived in Paris, and saw the photograph of Dorothy Counts walking to school, integrating the school in North Carolina, his thought was shame and anger — we should have been there with her, he thought. She should not have had to do that alone. That’s not what I think when I look at it, and in part that’s because I’m white and feel the shame of those reactions and unimaginable awe at her ability to be so composed.
Raoul Peck said that no one thought Baldwin’s thought when they saw the picture, and that was his gift, his ability to see what others don’t see even though it’s right there, obvious when he says what had not been obvious before. He had such clarity and sight and then an extraordinary gift to convey it with eloquence and unflinching, direct power.
Peck was born in Haiti, and lived in the Congo, and then all over the world. His experiences as a kid with dictators and the cruelty of power gave him an insatiable need to fight against abuse of authority. He said he simply cannot accept it. That struck me, because whether one can or cannot accept it, authority will continue to be abused and so this sets you up to be tilting at windmills, fighting an endless battle. And it struck me because I have my own version of it, as I’ve learned lately.
My friend Nancy often says to me, “I’m glad I’m not burdened with empathy the way you are.” Not just because she happily voted for Trump, but she keeps telling me to just let things be, not to be so absorbed by the protesting and the despair I feel, I have my own work I need to be doing and I should just do that and let the world be. I keep trying to explain to her that I cannot do that. I would like to! I would. I’d like to let it be, whether because I trust that others will protest and march and fight, or whether because I just allow that the world will ebb and flow and things will go as they will and it’s beyond my personal ability to change it anyway. But I can’t. Probably because of my own experiences in childhood, I just cannot accept abuse of authority. I cannot accept basic human rights being stripped away from human beings. I just cannot. It’s not a choice, it’s not even a value, it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s not even about my empathy, which I do have in deep stores. This is who I have always been, and because the fight was never so stark, my experience of it was never so strong.
Recently a varied number of people have told me that they think I am very brave, or fierce, and it always surprises me because I think those things include some aspect of choice and I’m not at all choosing my response. It isn’t even a response, really. But I am learning more about who I am, underneath the labels and descriptions. Even underneath my own labels and descriptions, I guess. It can take a long time to see a pattern; for the longest time, it’s just a number of data points. On a nice piece of empty graph paper with that neat x and y axis, when you are learning geometry, it’s easy to see that two points determine a line. But in the messy noise of living a life, with labels and confusion and conflict (even/especially inside yourself), that line can take a long time to see. As awful as it is, what is happening to my country, it has snapped my understanding into sharp relief: THIS IS WHO I AM. This is always who I have been, always. From rescuing pillbugs, to being bewildered that my best friend couldn’t come to my birthday party just because she was black, to my undisciplined thrashing in response to unfairness of all kinds, it’s always been this. It’s a line, from my feet through my core to my mind, and it just is.
In the most perfect world, each person in this world would be focused the most on being exactly who they are — to seeing the world as they see it, to flowering themselves out into the world. To singing their songs, saying their poems, engineering their creations, fighting the injustices they see that others don’t — and we would all do our best to encourage each other in that. I certainly didn’t have that, and I think when I was raising my kids, I was more focused on keeping them alive and on the path toward education and making “good” choices for themselves instead of listening to them and helping them flower. I can do that with my grandchildren of course, and I think my daughters will be better at that than I was. For me, at age 58, I continue to excavate, to shine lights in the corners, and to see who I am so I can flower outwards. And I add James Baldwin to my own pantheon (which includes Mister Rogers, Hillary Clinton, and John Lewis) for models for how to be a person in this world. I have an impulse to say that I’m changing right now, it feels that way, but I think a better way to say it is that layers are falling away that have hidden me from myself — and maybe they didn’t hide me from you, maybe you saw through them.
Be you. Let me see you. I want to see exactly who you are, I really do. I am feeling cheated by the world. I feel cheated by the oppressive white culture that hides so much from me. I feel cheated by the labels and boxes we are defined by whether they fit or not. Please be you, it’s the most important thing you can do, and it’s probably true that you will have to figure out what that means, first. xoxxo