Tag Archives: Race

Revisiting The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

15 Mar
Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

Baldwin with Shakespeare, London, 1969.  Photo by Allan Warren, Wikipedia Commons.

A few moths ago, after listening to me lament about how difficult it is to sit down and actually write every day, my sister gave me some James Baldwin to read, and it calmed my soul.  I keep returning to one essay in particular, The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, which Baldwin delivered as a speech at the Community Church in New York City in 1962.  The complete text does not seem to exist online, which is a shame, but it can be found in the collection, The Cross of Redemption, and is essential reading.  

To give you, the reader, the writer, the artist, the social changemaker, a little taste of Baldwin’s fierce tongue, and his ability to spit the truth from the heart—the raw with the real—the brutal with the tender—I’ve included some of my favorite excerpts below. 

What makes this speech so powerful is that it puts forth Baldwin’s personal manifesto, his reason for being, which any writer can relate to.  Being an artist entails a total risk of everything; integrity is the ability to stay true to one’s calling, one’s calling is the very essence of who they are, and this is not something you can turn on and off.  It’s not something that hangs around for the weekend or the summer or for the extent of a hook-up or a relationship or a friendship or even a marriage or while your kids are growing up—you’re calling is you—it is with you forever

And with this great responsibility, this great purpose to do your art, to do the work you were meant to do­—whether that’s to write, to paint, to design, to make movies, to create, to teach, to help, to give, to fight for social change—comes an equally if not more important obligation to practice humility.  You have to respect your craft, to learn its power, as well as respect its ability to cause personal pain and torment.  You have to be humble enough not to let your calling, your art, destroy you, because it can, because in almost all likelihood, will.  

***

Excerpts from The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity by James Baldwin

…The first thing an artist finds out when he is very, very young (when I say “young” I mean before he is fifteen, that is to say, before, properly speaking, he or she can walk or talk, before he or she has had enough experience to begin to assess his or her experience)—and what occurs in this hypothetical artist’s life is a kind of silence—the first thing he finds out is that for reasons he cannot explain to himself or others, he does not belong anywhere.  Maybe you’re on the football team, maybe you’re a runner, maybe you belong to a church, you certainly belong to a family; and abruptly, in other people’s eyes—this is very important—you begin to discover that you are moving and you can’t stop this movement to what looks like the edge of the world.  Now what is crucial, and one begins to understand it much, much later, is that if you were this hypothetical artist, if you were in fact the dreamer that everybody says you are, if in fact you were wrong not to settle for the things that you cannot for some mysterious reason settle for, if this were so, the testimony in the eyes of other people would not exist.  The crime of which you discover slowly you are guilty is not so much that you are aware, which is bad enough, but that other people see that you are and cannot bear to watch it, because it testifies to the fact that they are not…

…You walk into a room what somebody says, “What do you do?” And you say, “I write.”  And they say, “Yeah, but what do you do?”  And you wonder, what do you do? And what’s it for?  Why don’t you get a job?  And somehow you can’t, and finally you learn this is in the most terrible way, because you try.  You’re in the position of someone on the edge and it’s cold in the field, and there’s a house over there, and there’s fire in the house, and food and everything you need, everything you want, and you make all kinds of efforts to get into the house.  And they would let you in; they would let you in.  They’re not being cruel.  They recognize you as you come to the door, and they can’t let you in.  You get in, let us say, for five minutes, and you can’t stay…

…The trouble is that although the artist can do it, the price that he has to pay himself and that you, the audience, must also pay, is a willingness to give up everything, to realize that although you spent twenty-seven years acquiring this house, this furniture, this position, although you spent forty years raising this child, these children, nothing, none of it belongs to you.  You can only have it by letting it go.  You can only take if you prepared to give, and giving is not an investment.  It is not a day at the bargain counter.  It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go—everything, and this forever, forever…

…But then one has got to understand—that is, I and all my tribe (I mean artists now)—that it is hard for me.  If I spend weeks and months avoiding my typewriter—and I do, sharpening pencils, trying to avoid going where I know I’ve got to go—then one has got to use this to learn humility.  After all, there is kind of a saving egotism too, a cruel and dangerous but also saving egotism, about the artist’s condition, which is this:  I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood had dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter that is my torment but is also my work.  If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.  But if I find that hard to do—and I have a weapon which most people don’t have—then one must understand how hard it is for almost anybody else to do it all… 

***

So if it was so hard for James Baldwin to write—and yes, he had a weapon most writers can only dream of—how the hell are we supposed to do it?  Because we have to, or have to at least try.  As artists, we have to be true to ourselves; we have to ignore the voices telling us to stop and “get a real job,” we have to ignore the voice inside our own head that tells us every day to go out and “get a real job.” 

We have to continue to put ourselves out there, we have to continue to make courageous acts—through each blog post, each project, each show, each meeting, each event, each painting, each drawing, each piece of work, each and every day—we have to continue to risk everything—“and this, forever, forever.” 

When you have a moment, read the whole speech, which, true to its writer, switches to the subject of racial justice, which in the aftermath of the police shooting of Kimani Gray last Saturday in Brooklyn—yet another black teenager shot (7 times from 11 shots) and killed by the police, is just as relevant today as when delivered in 1962. 

In the end, Baldwin looks beyond the world of the individual artist, arguing that our collective integrity—our civilization as a whole, our humanity—is fundamentally broken and has failed, when we lack equality for our fellow man.    

Free Minds: Empowering Young Writers in Prison

25 Mar

Recently, I volunteered with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, a DC-based nonprofit organization that introduces teenage boys at the DC Jail and in federal prison to the life-changing power of books and creative writing.  Free Minds inspires these young people to see their potential by organizing book clubs at the DC Jail where 16 and 17 year-olds discuss literature and express themselves through creative writing, pairing youth with a volunteer writing mentor from the community.  Free Minds mentors these 16 and 17 year-olds (who have been tried and incarcerated as adults) throughout their incarceration and beyond release, providing reentry support, life skills workshops, and education referrals for life after prison.

At the Free Minds “Write Night” we provided comments and positive feedback on poems that these youth had written.  Free Minds then takes the volunteers’ comments and gives them to the authors behind bars– the positive feedback is meant to help the authors find their voices as writers and to continue writing.  We all know it’s gratifying to have someone commend your writing (or like your Facebook status), but can you imagine the transformative power in having someone comment on your words when you are in prison?  Knowing that someone out there is actually listening, that someone is listening to you, must be truly validating and empowering.

One talented young poet had written this line in his poem, which particularly grabbed me:  “In what adult mind frame is it justified to send juveniles to an adult prison? That’s what I’m trying to see.”  We should all ask ourselves the same question.  Lawyer and equal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, in an inspiring TED talk about injustice in America, notes that the United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13 year-olds to die in prison, and have life imprisonment without parole for kids.  How can we even begin to talk about justice when over 2200 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole?

Many of the poems I read at Write Night featured poignant reflections on the history of racial injustice in America, and the devastating impact of prison on the black community.  In a recent New Yorker article on mass incarceration in AmericaAdam Gopnik notes that blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites, and that there are more black men under the control of the criminal justice system that were in slavery in 1850. “The system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage,” the legal scholar Michelle Alexander writes. “Young black men pass quickly from a period of police harassment into a period of “formal control” (i.e., actual imprisonment) and then are doomed for life to a system of “invisible control.”

As their readers on the outside, we need to not only listen to the voices of incarcerated youth, but take action so that young people are not tried and incarcerated as adults.   Our for-profit prison system, supported by racially biased stop-and-frisk policing and sentencing disparities, locks up too many young people of color (often for minor offenses like marijuana possession), inhibiting their ability to get a job or education or vote or receive social services upon release, thus perpetuating a system of racial control that Alexander likens to slavery.  I’ll close with one of the poems published in the Free Minds anthology; to read inspiring poems by incarcerated youth, post comments that will be given to the authors in jail, or learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the Free Minds blog.

Confined as a Youth

by Antwon

When you think about childhood

You ‘posed to be able to smile

But never in my life was I taught how

I was always around anger that led to pain

I was always confined

At least that’s how it felt to my brain

The streets not only took me,  but they took my mother too

Confined as a youth, so tell me what I ‘posed to do?

Some people say they love the streets because the game is all they know

I will never label myself until I give myself time to grow

And sometimes I wonder why do it always have to be me?

Then I hear my great grandma’s voice saying

“You wasn’t the only one that wasn’t free”

It’s crazy how people put lies in our heads

Trying to get to believe this is who we are

When, for real, every living thing was meant to be a star

I hope one day we will see there’s no limit to what we all can do

But until that day comes, I’m here on earth, “confined as a youth”

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