Speeches will be given, essays written, and hefty books will be published on the various lives of James Baldwin. Some fantasies will be broadcast, and even some truths will be told. Someone will speak of the essayist Baldwin and his role as the biblical prophet Isaiah, admonishing his country to repent from wickedness, and create within itself a clean spirit and a clean heart. Others will examine Baldwin the playwright and novelist, who burned with a righteous indignation over the paucity of kindness, the absence of love, and the crippling hypocrisy he saw in the streets of the United States and sensed in the hearts of his fellow citizens.
I will speak of James Baldwin my friend and brother.
"A short, brown man came to the door and looked at me. He had the most extraordinary eyes I'd ever seen. When he completed his instant X-ray of my brain, lungs, liver, heart, bowels, and spinal column he smiled and said, 'Come in,' and opened the door. He opened the door all right. 'Lord,' I was to hear Beauford sing later and for many years, 'open the unusual door.' "
Thus, Baldwin describes meeting and being met by Beauford Delaney, the provocative black American painter who was to enlarge and enrich Baldwin's life. Baldwin's description of Delaney fitted Baldwin as well. For he, too, was small and brown and had the most extraordinary eyes.
I first met Jim, fleetingly, in the boites of Paris, when he and I and the world were young enough to believe ourselves independently salvageable. But we became friends in the late '50s just as the United States was poised to make its quantum leap into the future, as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other Southerners were girding themselves for the second civil war in 100 years, and Malcolm X was giving voice to anger on the streets and in the minds of Northern black city folks.
In that riotous past of political fervor, James Baldwin and I met again and liked each other. We discussed courage, human rights, God, and justice. We talked about black folks and love, about white folks and fear.
Although Jimmy was known as an accomplished playwright, few people knew that he was a frustrated actor as well. I had a role in Jean Genet's play "The Blacks," and since Jimmy knew Genet personally and knew the play in the original French, nothing could keep him from advising me on my performance. He furnished me with my first limousine ride, set the stage for me to write "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," encouraged me to take a course in cinematography in Sweden, and told me that I was intelligent and very brave. I knew Jim loved me when he gave me to Gloria and Paula, Wilmer and David Baldwin, and all the rest of his siblings. And when he took me to Mother Baldwin and said, "Just what you don't need, another daughter, but here she is." I knew that he knew black women may find lovers on street corners or even in church pews, but brothers are hard to come by, and are as necessary as air and as precious as love. James Baldwin knew that black women in this desolate world, black women in this cruel time which has no soundness in it, have a quiet need for brothers. He knew that a brother's love redeems a sister's pain. His love opened the unusual door for me, and I am blessed that James Baldwin was my brother.
If death is irresistible, life is relentless. After this painful ceremony is over, life will stumble on. Yet as James Baldwin joins that league of great black Americans who have lived for us, loved for us and died for us, questions arise. The great singer, Aminata Moseka, wrote an essay entitled "To Whom Shall She Cry Rape?" The questions which unsettle us now are: Where are the black writers who will dare to confront a racist nation? Who will illuminate the dream of the disenfranchised and sing the song of the voiceless? Who will remember that black men and women left the African continent together, lay spoon-fashion in filthy holds together?
Why should we ally ourselves with life again to be hurt again? Why should we identify with love to experience loss again? James Baldwin's gigantic and profound contributions answer all these questions. And I think that Baldwin, along with John Killens and Julian Mayfield, sitting as elder deacons on the front row of our global church sing to us, "Make It Plain." Try to love each other. Hold each other. Brothers, protect and cherish your sisters. Sisters, protect and cherish your brothers, and don't keep the good news that you love each other to yourself.
Go--tell it on the mountain!