Authors: James Baldwin
We have honored James Baldwin's own original typographical and grammatical preferences in this volume, both in presenting the poems from
exactly as they were originally printed and in the poems taken from the privately printed, limited-edition volume,
, as Baldwin had determined shortly before his death. While this has resulted in formatting inconsistencies within this volume, we believe it is important to reflect his own choices.
Baldwin was never afraid to say it. He made me less afraid to say it too.
The air of the Republic was already rich with him when I got here. James Arthur Baldwin, the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century, was in the midst of publishing his resolute and prophetic essays and novels:
Go Tell It on the Mountain
The Amen Corner
Notes of a Native Son
(1956). I arrived on planet earth in the middle of his personal and relentless assault on white supremacy and his brilliant, succinct understanding of world and American history. In every direction I turned, my ears filled a little more with what he always had to say. His words, his spirit, mattered to me. Black, gay, bejeweled, eyes like orbs searching, dancing, calling
a spade a spade
, in magazines and on the black-and-white TV of my youth. Baldwin, deep in thought and pulling drags from his companion cigarettes, looking his and our danger in the face and never backing down. My worldview was set in motion by this big, bold heart who understood that he had to leave his America in order to be. Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide. Baldwin was also the priceless inheritance to anybody looking for manumission from who they didn't want or have to be. Gracious and tender, a man who had no idea or concept of his place, who nurtured conversation with Black Panthers and the white literati all in the same afternoon. So powerful and controversial was his name that one minute it was there on the speaker's list for the great August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and then, poof, it was off. The country might have been ready to march for things they believed all God's children should have in this life, but there were people, richly mis-educated by the Republic, who were not ready for James Baldwin to bring truth in those searing ways he always brought truth to the multitudes.
The eldest of nine, a beloved son of Harlem, his irreverent pride and trust in his own mind, his soul (privately and sometimes publicly warring), all of who he was and believed himself to be, was exposed in his first person, unlimited voice, not for sale, but vulnerable to the Republic. Baldwin's proud sexuality, and his unwillingness to censor his understanding that sex was a foundational part of this life even in the puritanical Republic and therefore should be written, unclothed, not whispered about, not roped off in some back room, informed all of his work, but especially his poetry. Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary brilliance from both the conservative Black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leanedânever afraid to say it.
Only once did I see James Baldwin live and in warm, brilliant person; it was 1984, a packed house at the University of California at Berkeley. I was twenty-seven, he was sixty, and we would never meet. None of us there that night, standing shoulder to shoulder, pushed to the edge of our seats, knew that this was our last embrace with him, that we would only have him walking among us for three more years. I remember the timbre of his voice. Steadfast. Smoky. Serene. His words fell on us like a good rain. A replenishing we badly needed. All of us standing, sitting, spread out before this wise, sharp-witted, all-seeing man.
James Baldwin by way of his “Sweet Lorraine,” a seventeen-hundred-and-seventy-six-word loving manifesto to his friend and comrade, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry died from cancer at the age of thirty-four, soon after her great work,
A Raisin in the Sun
, yanked the apron and head rag off the institution of the American theater, Broadway, 1959. Baldwin's intimate remembrance became the introduction to the book of the same name, a book that, as a girl of fourteen, I was highly uncomfortable ever letting out of my sight. I was the Black girl dreaming of a writing life and Hansberry, the Black woman carving one out. Hansberry had given me two atomic oars to zephyr me further upstream:
I am a writer. I am going to write
. After her untimely death, I had a palpable need to still see and feel her in the world. Baldwin's lush remembrance brought her to me in powerful living dimension. His way of seeing her, of remembering what was important about her, helped her stay with me.
I had needed Hansberry to set my determination forward for my journey. And I needed Baldwin to teach me about the power of rain.
Baldwin wrote poetry throughout his life. He wrote with an engaged, layered, facile hand. The idea being explored first cinched, then stretched out, with just enough tension to bring the light in. His language: informal, inviting; his ideas from the four corners of the earth, beginning, always, with love:
No man can have a harlot
for a lover
nor stay in bed forever
with a lie
He must rise up
and face the morning sky
and himself, in the mirror
of his lover's eye
(“A Lover's Question”)
Baldwin's images carry their weight and we, the reader, carry their consequence. In one turn of phrase and line, something lies easy in repose; in the next, he is telling the Lord what to do; the words jump, fall in line, with great and marching verve:
when you send the rain
think about it, please
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water
the marvelous light
on the falling water
am beneath that water
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light
Baldwin wrote as the words instructed, never allowing the critics of the Republic to tell him how or how not. They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear. He fastidiously handed that empty caricature of a Black writer back to them, tipping his hat, turning back to his sweet Harlem alley for more juice.
James Baldwin, as poet, was incessantly paying attention and always leaning into the din and hum around him, making his poems from his notes of what was found there, making his outlines, his annotations, doing his jotting down, writing from the mettle and marginalia of his life, giving commentary, scribbling, then dispatching out to the world what he knew and felt about that world. James Baldwin, as poet, was forever licking the tip of his pencil, preparing for more calculations, more inventory, moving, counting each letter being made inside the abacus of the poem. James Baldwin, as poet, never forgot what he had taught me in that seventeen-hundred-and-seventy-six-word essayâto remember where one came from. So many of the poems are dedicated back to someone who perhaps had gone the distance, perhaps had taught him about the rain:
for David (x3), for Jefe, for Lena Horne, for Rico, for Berdis, for Y.S
When the writer Cecil Brown went to see James Baldwin in Paris in the summer of 1982, he found him “busy working on a collection of poems,” quite possibly these poems. Brown reports that Baldwin would work on a poem for a while and then stop from time to time to read one aloud to him. “Staggerlee wonders” was one of those poems, and “Staggerlee wonders” opens
, the collection he published in 1983. The poem begins with indefatigable might, setting the tone and temperature for everything else in this volume, as well as the sound and sense found throughout Baldwin's
. “Baldwin read to me from the poem with great humor and laughter,” Brown wrote in his book
Stagolee Shot Billy
He felt that Black men in America, as the most obvious targets of white oppression, had to love each other, to warn each other, and to communicate with each other if they were to escape being defined only in reaction to that oppression. They had to seek and find in their own tradition the human qualities that white men, through their unrelenting brutality, had lost.
I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding white men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin's use of the word
as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last white country the world will ever see” (Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage”).
I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile
from blowing up that earth
With prophetic understanding, harmony, and swing, creating his own style and using his own gauges to navigate the journey, Baldwin often wrote counter-metrically, reflecting his African, Southern, Harlem, and Paris roots. “What do you like about Emily Dickinson?” he was once asked in a
interview. His answer: “Her use of language . . . Her solitude, as well, and the style of that solitude. There is something very moving and in the best sense funny.”
James Baldwin made laughter of a certain style even as he reported the lies of the Republic. He was so aware of that other face so necessary in this life, that face that was present in all the best human dramatic monologues, the high historic Black art of laughing to keep from crying. He knew that without the blues there would be no jazz. Just as Baldwin dropped you into the fire, there he was extinguishing it with laughter.
has anyone discussed the Bomb with the niggers:
the incoherent feeling is, the less
the nigger knows about the Bomb, the better:
the lady of the house
smiles nervously in your direction
as though she had just been overheard
discussing family, or sexual secrets
and changes the subject to Education
or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls
the smile saying
, Don't be dismayed.
We know how you feel. You can trust us.