James Baldwin on What Artists Know

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the American novelist, poet, and social critic James Baldwin.

10427James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. His mother reportedly never told him the name of his biological father.

Baldwin spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him — by comparison with his siblings — with great harshness.

Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age, and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. He published numerous poems, short stories and plays in the magazine.

In 1953, Baldwin’s first and probably best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known. He garnered acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality, and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room,Another Country and Just Above My Head.

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America.

Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul de Vence.

The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.

// James Baldwin

I got this quote from a beautiful talk Baldwin gave at New York City’s Community Church on creativity and what it costs to be a true artist. I found it on the Brain Pickings blog from a post titled James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human, whew! I urge you to listen to it, I have three times now and each time I feel more inspired and motivated.

In part of the talk, Baldwin tells us that most people live in darkness and it is the artists job to bring the to the light. The light is all the that makes us, us. It is the feeling of being encased in flesh and unbound in mind. It is all we easily forget we are and could be. You have to tell the truth of what it means to be a human being. It is an artist’s responsibility to do this and whether or not you asked for it, you must accept.

In a way, it made me think of Spiderman. You know, when Uncle ben told Peter that “with great power came great responsibility”. Peter didn’t ask for his powers, he didn’t ask to be a hero, but he was given the job all the same. All of a sudden his life he would be spent saving people and trying to make the word a better place. It wasn’t at all what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t be thanked, he would more than likely be hated, and he would never be normal again, but none of that mattered. He had to do it.

Artists, writer, poets, musician, we all see the world differently and we have the ability to share our insight. That is a superpower too, and whether we like it or not, whether we asked for it or not whether we even want to or not, we have to do it. We have to do it authentically and we have to do it with money and fame being only secondary goals. We have to do it because we love it. That is the only way to do it right.

We have to because without artists showing people the light we might all be lost to the darkness.

***

Please be sure to check out the post on Brainpickings and listen to the talk below.

Featured image via Christian Gonzalez

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Biography, and Goodreads

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Lisa

Hello! My name is Lisa. I find the human condition fascinating and I often write stuff about that. I blog at zenandpi.com but you can also find me on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and if you like what I do, consider signing up for my newsletter. Thanks :)

5 thoughts on “James Baldwin on What Artists Know”

  1. Lisa, this quote: “Baldwin tells us that most people live in darkness and it is the artists job to bring the to the light. The light is all the that makes us, us. It is the feeling of being encased in flesh and unbound in mind. It is all we easily forget we are and could be. You have to tell the truth of what it means to be a human being. It is an artist’s responsibility to do this and whether or not you asked for it, you must accept,” gave me absolute chills! This is what I have always felt but alas never found the words to say in quite the same way. Writing is the same as music and art… it brings light and beauty to an otherwise gray world! Beautiful. I must check out this video! <3

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