Few writers can do what James Baldwin does to me - that is, to simultaneously make me feel like both a better and a worse person. To wit, from "This Nettle, Danger...":
"We all attempt to live on the surface, where we assume we will be less lonely, whereas experience is of the depths and is dictated by what we really fear and hate and love as distinguished from what we think we ought to fear and hate and love."
Just yesterday Baldwin, a childless homosexual, gave me some firm, sage wisdom on parenting in his essay "Nothing Personal":
"...nothing is more vivid in American life than the fact that we have no respect for our children, nor have our children any respect for us. By being what we have become, by placing things above people, we broke their hearts early, and drove them away.
"Children can survive without money or security or safety or things: but they are lost if they cannot find a loving example, for only this example can give them a touchstone for their lives. Thus far and no further: this is what the father must say to the child. If the child is not told where the limits are, he will spend the rest of his life trying to discover them. For the child who is not told where the limits are knows, though he may not know he knows it, that no one cares enough about him to prepare him for the journey."
I read this yesterday, right before I read a post on Facebook by an old childhood friend who was remembering a mentor who'd died in 2011. I learned from this post that this friend of mine been in and out of the court system from junior high through high school. My remembrance of him was of a fun-loving kid with whom I rode bikes around North Lawrence, comparing the cockroaches in our respective homes and the fish we caught at the sand pit and Lone Star Lake. Like many of my friends, I shared with him a gaping hole where a father should be and a mother attempting to fill that hole by housing with a guy ill-equipped to fill it.
Anyway, sometime between junior high and high school, after my friend had been to court roughly twenty times, he was to be sent to a juvenile detention center. That was when his friend's dad bought him a suit, asked the judge at my friend's hearing if he could assume custody, and taught my friend how to clean carpets, the man's business. Now, after the man's death, my friend owns that business.
I'm pretty sure I could read a James Baldwin essay every day for the rest of my life, and find at least five applications for it in that given day.
With that in mind, I've been in a project I started last September of reading all of Baldwin's published essays in chronological order, just a few each month so I could savor them, let them sit with me, let Baldwin seep into my own sensibility. It's been intensely rewarding; I'm now in 1964.
Another reason for my Baldwin project was more mercenary, or at least job-related. Last December, I edited for Hunger Mountain a celebration of of Baldwin's life and work on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death with Jennifer Bowen Hicks, a born-and-bred Baldwinite both in terms of her commitment to her craft and her intense empathy and commitment to social service (besides writing, she runs a writing program for prisoners in the state of Minnesota).
If editing the project taught me anything, it was the deep and abiding love of Baldwin many writers share with me. With that I'd like to present each of the pieces in Hunger Mountain's James Baldwin Project: