The Heart of the Issue
What James Baldwin Taught Me About Freedom and Humanity
I'm up late reading when I get the Apple news app notification. Ukraine is under attack.
My first thought is, "when words fail..."
This sentiment grows into a wider question: "What do we do when words fail?" - when peace talks and vital negotiations all fall through. What do we do in the face of this helplessness that shows its inexorable face?
For myself and many others, the desire to mobilize change tends to couple a desire to try and figure out the unthinkable. To make some sense out of suffering, out of evil (a word I use stripped of its supernatural connotations).
Perhaps we're getting better at facing this sort of dilemma, with addressing freedom (and attacks upon it) through self-reflection. The need for moral discussion, not political swordplay, is ever-pressing and necessary.
It may be because, in the last couple of years, we have all unwillingly lived through our fair share of history book events. We can all sense this in the strangest of ways, even as we become ever-accustomed to new realities. It is this subtle spirit of helplessness that we have tried everything under the sun to distract us from - as modernity is full of distractions...
One beneficial way we try and spurn that helplessness in the spirit of activism, is to unite, organize, and condemn. But that feeling, that deeply-ingrained sadness over humanity, and our cycles of violence remain fixed. And what then?
I don't have the answers to this, nor the wisdom. I have lived a generally quiet and privileged life. So I know that the heart of my learning, of my activism, comes from listening to individuals past and present. There are pivotal voices that can help us face the heart of the issue, this "moral center" - which is the only place by which we can move out of our fears, out of our comfort zone, and for all humanity.
Along these lines, no writer's wisdom has impacted me more than James Baldwin. His lifelong pursuit of getting to the bottom of systemic racism in America led to a scathing examination of humanity as a whole - a task undertaken in his stunning, unmatched prose.
"freedom, justice, and democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare...It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply..."
Though Baldwin strived for these values to be universally realized, he never reduced these crucial concepts - especially freedom - down to political contest, into policy. He knew that freedom was so much more than politics...more than empty speeches and lifeless terminology. Further, he knew the danger of turning people into symbols, into a remote calamity, into anything less than richly complex and beautiful humans just like oneself. In this way, our self-examination and wider reflection are crucial. For, when we lose this ability to see ourselves in the eyes of another, it affects our actions, and freedom can quickly become an afterthought in our world.
Baldwin's advice for how humanity was to move beyond hate, violence, and indifference to truly foster freedom rested on a "rebirth of our moral lives." Such a rebirth would halt the cycle, this endless back and forth of beating each other down or turning a blind eye. It would extinguish this dangerous phenomenon - making it so that when looking into the eyes of another, we not only see ourselves but see humanity in its essence. Equal by nature.
The moralistic sentiments I reiterate here, inspired by Baldwin, have lost their popularity and their voice in our world. And it's hard to examine humanity and our subsequent evils with lucidity and honesty when we are so used to avoiding the heart of the issue - distancing ourselves from or downplaying the sufferings and tribulations of our fellow human beings.
Facing humanity's inhumanity was at the root of Baldwin's writing and activism. He wanted to dissect it all - the good, bad, and the ugly - in order to understand it. The latter of which is required for us to prevent it. In other words, we have to understand the mechanics of power and oppression in order to understand freedom and the fight for it.
This is a process that starts with the individual, with our inner world, our moral identity. It also involves active and profound discussion. Above all, it requires deep emotion and compassion, a concern for humanity as a collective.
To answer the vein of inquiry I began with - what we must first do when words fail is examine and re-examine and feel nonetheless. This is the fuel by which change can grow. It is a change centered around human connection and a conception of freedom that hinges on compassion. Baldwin knew that living by a precept of freedom meant putting yourselves in the shoes of another human being and acting upon that crucial understanding in life and love.
In all his remarkable prose, Baldwin has ingrained in me this vital process. It is far from an easy process. I think we all know this. It is easy to be impassively individualistic and detached - unconcerned until the fire is upon your being. His words have inspired me to see how by holding empathy deep in one's chest, the fight for freedom near and far is always your fight.
I leave off with Baldwin's words once again - a mind I revere so so deeply.
"There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now"
"I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I'm forced to be an optimist."