Tag Archives: racism

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.    

Justice Please: Reject Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Law

28 Apr

The Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments on Wednesday in Arizona v. United States, regarding the Justice Department’s challenge to the controversial anti-immigration law in Arizona, the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, otherwise known as Arizona SB 1070, or the “Papers please” law.  To provide some background on the racist roots of this legislation:  SB 1070 was sponsored by former Republican Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, and signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010.   Pearce received assistance from Kris Kobach and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in drafting the legislation—FAIR has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has connections on its board of directors to the eugenics movement and other White Nationalist organizations— and much of the language of SB 1070 was drafted at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), alongside officials of the Corrections Corporation of America.  In 2010, NPR published a story on the relationship between Pearce’s bill and private prison companies.

SB 1070 is being challenged by the Obama administration, which argues that measures that provide for arrests and penalties under the so-called “reasonable suspicion” of being an undocumented immigrant amount to racial profiling and are unconstitutional.

While the final vote will not come until June, according to the Washington Post, Supreme Court justices strongly suggested Wednesday that they were skeptical of the administration’s case against SB 1070 and ready to allow Arizona to allow police officers to check the immigration status of people they “think” are in the country illegally.  If this law holds, it will set the precedent for states circumventing federal immigration policies and enacting their own (racist and unconstitutional) anti-immigrant policies, as we’ve already seen take place (to the detriment of human rights and economic well-being) in GeorgiaUtah, and Alabama.  That these laws have made parents remove their (U.S. citizen) children from elementary schools and farmers leave the farms they are working on out of fear of deportation, shows just how hateful and powerful the anti-immigrant movement in America has become.     

We should protect the human rights of people who come to this country to work hard, educate their children, and make a better life for themselves and their families.  We should remove racist anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona and other states, as well as end the Obama administration’s record-setting deportation practices, which tear families and communities apart.  According to figures released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Obama administration deported nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants last fiscal year, setting a shameful record high for deportations for the third straight year (including deporting 46,686 parents who had at least one U.S. citizen child in the first half of 2011 alone). 

If the Supreme Court’s decision in this case in June comes out in favor of states being able to promote racial profiling, hatred, and the criminalization of immigrants, few will be surprised, as it would reflect an “American dream” in which liberty and justice for some has prevailed.  However, if the Supreme Court stands against racism, and rejects Arizona SB 1070, it may provide the momentum necessary for future comprehensive federal immigration reform that actually protects liberty and justice for all people in this country. 

%d bloggers like this: