How James Baldwin’s brilliance is helping me refocus

I started this blog post, which was supposed to be written during week two of my #52Essays2017 commitment, well after week two because: 1) life and 2) my busy full time job and 3) family commitments and 4) writer/curator deadlines that have been filling up my calendar. Perhaps this short post is morphing into a discussion about how I can sometimes be my own biggest roadblock. Maybe it’s also about how I can sometimes be my biggest advocate, when I really need or want to get back on track. My first essay during the first week of this new year was about loss and love and how losing my Mom one year ago and then unexpectedly losing my good friend, Monica Hand, almost exactly a year later, left me feeling unsettled, sad, angry and perhaps even a little bit lost. It was also about how, with time, I’m learning to draw on the strength, power and legacy of these two powerful women, as I try to move through the world. It is a slow process that I can’t really rush, as much as I wish I could. I’m (trying) to (slowly) figure out how to allow myself to just sit with sadness, without being so hard on myself. Some days I succeed and others not so much.  As so many before me have shared, there’s no specific or clear timeline for grief.

I just completed facilitating a six-week reading and discussion group sponsored by Humanities New York, which focused primarily on the essays of James Baldwin. His essays allowed us to reflect on and discuss history, race, love and politics, both then and now. Our group, hosted by The Brooklyn Community Pride Center, was a diverse melting pot of New Yorkers; a beautiful, intergenerational group of POC LGBTQ thinkers and allies. Our class first met in November, a weekend after Presidential election results and it was clear, early on, that Baldwin’s words would both heal, empower and connect us all during a depressing political climate. Those weekly discussions with Baldwin’s essays as our connector, was a way for us to work out our angst and to help make sense out of a politically charged and off-kilter world. Baldwin became our guidepost. As inauguration weekend approached, like so many folks around the country, I was antsy, angry and still in a general state of disbelief. Our Baldwin group had just ended the weekend before inauguration and I missed that I would no longer have our lively, brilliant and empowered community group to help process life post-inauguration.  What would I do without the benefit of our group analyzing and celebrating Baldwin’s essays and brilliant words of guidance each week?  There really is no other writer or thinker whose words seemed so relevant to process the politics of today. Our discussions each week for those six weeks confirmed that. What would I do without my weekly Baldwin community discussion fix?

We all deal differently with angst, so I decided rather spontaneously the night before inauguration, to post on my Facebook timeline, the following:

“Warning. I will be sharing, posting, bombarding my timeline with James Baldwin quotes tonight, tomorrow and the foreseeable future. No apologizes at all for this. We do what we must to get through each day.” JP Howard

First I posted it on Facebook, then an abbreviated version on Twitter and finally a day or so later, on my Instagram account. Immediately friends began liking the status and responding with enthusiastic support and widely sharing their favorite Baldwin quotes, as I posted them.  It’s been three consecutive days since I’ve been posting brilliant, political, and inspirational Baldwin quotes. He has literally been giving me life y’all! All of his quotes are absolutely on time for 2017, just as they were for the 1960’s and all the decades in between. Baldwin’s words are truly a guide for how I want and need to move through this complicated world.

Some favorite quotes of Baldwin that I’ve shared via social media are below. Check them out, but more importantly, go find his essays, get your hands on any Baldwin related films and YouTube videos/interviews; many are accessible on the Internet. Maybe even start your own Baldwin support group, because his words are powerful, political, unapologetic, incendiary in the best possible ways, healing balms and ultimately affirming.  His words force us all to really look into the mirror at ourselves and see how we can be better, do better, and create change that we desire and need on so many levels. If you’re a writer or an artist, he will speak directly to you about your duty in the world. Check out some of the brilliant Baldwin quotes I’ve shared so far on my social media feeds:

"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."

"To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger."

"People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them."

"Whoever debases others is debasing himself."

"Artists are here to disturb the peace."

"Writing is a political instrument."

"You write in order to change the world."

Yesterday, I found a quote that I had forgotten about and it seemed so perfect for this current political climate. Baldwin said: "I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do." What?! When I re-read this quote it applied so perfectly to the politics of today, that all I could say was Amen and Ashe!

Baldwin was always a brilliant writer and thinker and really had his hand on the pulse of the political climate of the day. Words that he wrote over 50 years ago still resonate and are so timely in 2017. As a writer and activist, I’m most inspired by his directives to writers and artists. When I re-read his statement that “Artists are here to disturb the peace” and that “Writing is a political instrument” or that wewrite in order to change the world,” I felt invigorated and determined to continue to share his words and to continue to use the power of my own voice as a political tool. Having just returned from the Women’s March on Washington, D.C. this past weekend, coupled with Baldwin’s brilliance as a guidepost, I feel emboldened to continue to write in order to change the world and to continue to march and organize in solidarity with others who want and need to effectuate change. So thank you James Baldwin for helping me get my groove back. 

JP Howard | January 23, 2017