James Baldwin, 1945. Portrait by Richard Avedon. Photo Credit, National Portrait Gallery
Since writing about the Birmingham Project, I could not resist drawing parallels between the past and present. We have placed a healthy distance between past and present, north and south and fly over states and the west, but why have we done this and what does this say about ourselves?
In 1963 Baldwin visited San Francisco California and local PBS station KQED followed the writer and local community leaders around the city’s Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhoods. The resulting documentary called Take This Hammer revealed hidden similarities between San Francisco and Birmingham that we’re still not comfortable confronting today. Baldwin draws a brash conclusion immediately within the 3 1/2 minutes of film:
“There’s no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.”
In San Francisco in 1963, incarceration, racial profiling, lack of jobs, lack of fair housing and institutional bias have laid a foundation for segregation that the city it still struggles to emerge from. The clear differences between the overt discrimination in the south and covert forms of racial bias both lead to devastating outcomes in communities. Baldwin’s ability to hold a mirror to ourselves is an uncomfortable but necessary exercise.
“To be locked in the past means in effect, that one has no past since one can never asses it: and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free.”
This passage is from Baldwin’s essay, Nothing Personal published in 1964; the book is a fascinating to me for two reasons: it was critically panned and it contained photography by my favorite photographer Richard Avedon. As I looked back on Robert Brustein’s scathing review of the book in 1964, it was clear that Brustein’s beef with Baldwin was in fact, 100% personal. This immediately made me want to read the essay, because as they say in the south, “A hit dog will holler.” Given the subject matter, it was not surprising that Baldwin’s message was received so poorly. Concepts that people aren’t ready for are often challenged.
I also didn’t know until recently that Baldwin and Avedon were friends, having gone to High School together as co-editors of their school’s literary magazine. Their friendship and work on this particular project is a story for another post.
While Nothing Personal starts out with some indulgent, meandering observations on a vacuous pastime we have all fallen victim to (being subjected to TV commercials), Baldwin makes some very astute observations on money, power and our country’s foundational principles being inextricably tied to both. As much as Baldwin likes to force us to take hard looks at ourselves, Baldwin models that exercise on himself within this essay. One emotionally raw passage that exposes his vulnerabilities on love, loss and death while another reconciles his thoughts on the temporal nature of pain.
“For nothing is fixed, forever…the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witness they have.”