In content matter, this is a departure, a diversion, from my usual focus on Early Childhood–I’m hoping not as far as it might seem.
If you find this post interesting and want to learn more about the James Baldwin Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), be sure to join today’s online event here this afternoon, 9/8/2015 at 3:30 PM Eastern.
If you miss this event, it will be available for viewing at the NMAAHC YouTube Channel.

Clip of handwritten letter (Baldwin to mother, 1/17/1977)

Clipping from a handwritten letter from James Baldwin to his mother, Berdis Baldwin, dated January 17, 1977. From the James Baldwin Collection, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

Jan. 17, 1977
Dear Mama:

My friend, Max, took these, and developed them, and hopes that you will like them.

He hopes more than that, actually-: as the song says, motherless children have a hard time – And there are so many ways to be motherless.


In the middle of my hardest book. But, you will say, I always say that. Well. It’s always true. And have another book in my head, kicking my behind, kicking this one out. Pray for me.

See you soon- around May.

Earlier this summer I stumbled over a now-completed volunteer online project through the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) seeking help in transcribing artifacts related to the life and work of James Baldwin. This proved to be one of those moments that comes along, something shiny and surprising that grabs your attention and demands action. Encountering the barriers that arise when you have a plan in life but each step seems a diversion1, I was an eager accomplice. The concept of visually wading through a few items and immersing myself in Baldwin’s handwritten work, even (or perhaps especially) tiny bits of it, was instantly appealing, for a host of reasons.

First and foremost, I have loved the work of James Baldwin for decades. An aimlessly frozen 17-year-old, I was captivated by one of his stories found in a collection of assigned reading, most likely “Sonny’s Blues”, and sought out more. (The letter from Baldwin to his mother, transcribed above, would have been written not long before I discovered his work.) A lover of short stories, and an older brother myself like the narrator in that story, I found the original collection of Baldwin stories containing “Sonny’s Blues”, titled Going to Meet the Man, and was hooked. It was not long before these words led me to Baldwin’s novels (especially Another Country and Giovanni’s Room) and essays (particularly those in The Fire Next Time); challenging concepts from beyond my world.

Decades later, my personal learning from reading Baldwin’s work is impossibly complex. I’m writing this, in fact, to memorialize just a few of the elements of that learning, still going on today, and other works that I’ve come across with (sometimes cryptic) connections–perhaps more for myself than you, the reader.

    • The less we have in common with another person, the more we have to learn from them. While there are important bonds within family and culture, the human tendency to seek out individuals and groups that are comfortable and safe–others who are “like us”–fundamentally narrows our perspective.
    • Another instinct, that seeking safety, upholds the status quo. As put by Baldwin’s friend and biographer, David Leeming, in the preface to his 1994 biography of Baldwin:

    [Baldwin’s] was the “voice in the wilderness” that preached the necessity of touching. In his personal life and his work, he took the side of those who were made into exiles and outcasts by barriers of race, sex, and class or who turned away from safety and chose the honorable path of tearing down such barriers. But he mourned for those who had created the barriers and had unwittingly allowed themselves to be destroyed by them.2

    • One mechanism for confronting the instinct for “safety” is to openly and broad-mindedly engage those whose views or tactics are antithetical to your own. Baldwin had a deep belief in nonviolence–perhaps more precisely, a hatred of violence–and in the necessity of integration to move the country away from its history of racial hatred. However, as the sixties moved forward Baldwin openly supported leaders like Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Stokely Carmichael in spite of their acceptance of the use of violence and racial separation to gain justice for African Americans.3 In this support, Baldwin recognized the necessity of nuance in examining complex social issues. He represented the conflict and power of these alternative approaches at the core of his play, Blues for Mister Charlie.
    • For those of us whose lives are privileged, it is especially important to challenge that instinct for “safety” if we wish to help change things for the better. The first step is to listen to those whose experience is not our own, or who have seen and share what we’d least like to see in the world around us–including the beauty that exists outside our own learned standards of “beauty.” As a young teacher, that meant, for me, reading the work of Jonathan Kozol, starting with The night is dark and I am far from home. As a landscape photographer, it meant taking in the work of Roy DeCarava and Mary Ellen Mark.
    • Today, during these times of strife and challenge, it also means listening carefully to all viewpoints in deciding when, and how, to support change that is still needed to bring peace and justice to all in our country, from a position of relative privilege. There is much debate about how, or if, white liberals can be part of a movement to achieve real change that is rooted in the history created by the privileged classes. Indeed, the need to shake liberals out of inadvertent complicity in the injustices of the time was the core of the title essay in The Fire Next Time. For now, I do my best to take in the current version of these debates, and do what I can to projects like the Baldwin transcription project or The Freedmen’s Project at NMAAHC.

    And I take all I can from Baldwin, his beautiful language, and his power as a witness. I am still sorting out all that I take from his letter to his mother that I transcribed two months ago. As I do–focusing, of late, on understanding all I can in the thought that “there are so many ways to be motherless”–I’ll listen to Blind Willie Johnson and read some more.

    “Motherless Children” recorded by Blind Willie Johnson, 1927

    “The Celestial Monochord” Orphan Songs, Part 8: Motherless Children Have a Hard Time

    1 Linked drawing found at DoghouseDiaries website, at http://thedoghousediaries.com/5468. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License.

    2 Leeming, David Adams. 2015. James Baldwin: a biography. Arcade, New York. p. xiii.

    3 See ibid, pp.294-296.

One thought on “Meaningful diversions…

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