The Gospel of James Baldwin

Still from The Root of Our Trouble (Né à Nouveau) by Meshell Ndegeocello

James Baldwin never taught in a school, yet his life’s work as an novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, public speaker and activist, is replete with lessons about speaking truth to power and moral responsibility.

Whether Baldwin was writing a work of fiction or nonfiction, the integrity and poignancy of how he addressed major social issues, has had a significant impact on intersectionality studies and social justice education. Baldwin’s stories feature protagonists whose intertwined identities and experiences, communicate the different modes of discrimination and privilege related to race, sex, gender and class. His essays critiquing social and cultural issues, encapsulate the emotion and the aggression behind identity politics in the United States of America. He personally experienced feelings of otherness as a queer Black man living in the United States. Even within the progressive civil rights community, his queerness was othered by some of the leading activists (Valenzuela, 2018). Baldwin knew that the whole self is more than the sum of its parts. The individual must liberate themselves from the oppressive and systemic labels that relegate us to be passive members of the culture(s) we live in. We should not be afraid of desiring change, but we must do more than just want it, we need to be active participants in working for it. As Baldwin stated during an incredible seven hour long conversation with Margaret Mead, “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble” (Baldwin and Mead, 1971).

One means of expressing this is through art. Knowledge is formed by giving meaning to the sensory experiences that surround us. Baldwin said that “An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are” (Howard, 1963). Through art we find ways to symbolically communicate our complex personal and cultural backgrounds and life experiences. Art is a record and expression of the time when it was made, as well as a mosaic of emotions that the artist felt in that moment. When a work of art is released into the world, the viewer reacts to it through their own understandings and perceptions of who they are and where they see themselves within the grand scheme of things. Art is a common denominator for our humanity. It embodies our need to be seen, heard and felt. When we come together around a work of art or an artful experience we share virtuous, intimate and compassionate aspects of our human condition.

The critical yet empathetic nature of Baldwin’s work has inspired an array of soulful artistic responses including musician Meshell Ndegeocello’s multimedia platform called Chapter & Verse. The project is inspired by Baldwin’s 1963 non-fiction book The Fire Next Time, which consists of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind.” Each essay addresses intersectional themes of identity in America. The book’s title comes from the lyric in an African-American spiritual called Mary Don’t You Weep: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water the fire next time.”

Ndegeocello considers The Fire Next Time to be akin to a religious text (Ndegeocello, 2020). She writes, “Baldwin speaks about things that are very familiar within the human condition, and the most revolutionary music to me — the music that changed my life — is the songs about the inner struggle, the commonality of being human” (Ibid, 2020). In keeping with a Black aesthetic tradition of improvisation and call and response, Chapter & Verse creates a permeating pattern of democratic participation in racial, social and environmental justice issues. It is a performative pedagogy and a philosophy, as well as a pragmatic toolkit for building unity, equality, equity and social justice in our turbulent times. The online art-centered learning and healing platform is structured into three categories with new content added monthly:

Dial a toll-free telephone number (1-833-4-BALDWIN) to discover songs, meditations and chants, which are aimed to support mindfulness any time, day or night when you need it most.

Experience visual testimonies of Baldwin’s text, with original music created by Ndegeocello and artistic collaborators, including Suné Woods, Nicholas Galanin and Charlotte Brathwaite.

A monthly broadsheet, featuring Baldwin’s words and calls to action.

Woods, Galanin and Ndegeocello interpret Baldwin’s empowering messages for humanity in their own ways, while meditating on the interconnectivity of our sociocultural backgrounds and experiences. In a Dewey-ian (John Dewey, see: Experience and Education) and Baldwin-ian fashion, each of the visual narratives express how an interaction between nature and nurture (see: McLeod, 2018) develops holistic, liberated and loving individuals. A message that is reflected in each visual narrative, is the educator and artist’s role in creating environments that continually assimilate our experiences and acquire meaning within our ever changing world.

In addition to inspiring other creative writers and artists of all disciplines, Baldwin’s pedagogical creed has inspired social justice transformation and knowledge within the educational sphere (see: Baker, 2018 and Smith, 2017). While he never considered himself to be a teacher, his speech to schoolteachers on October 16, 1963 is full of important and enduring lessons.

“The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.” (Baldwin, 1963)

Baldwin’s words ring true in a world ravaged by multiple pandemics including a public health crisis and rampant social injustice. Baldwin’s testimonies reflect what both teachers and artists have been doing in their respective practices; which is to help us understand that culture is shaped by the experiences and ideological backgrounds of those who came before us, and that the course of the world is ours to define.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Baker, Araya. “What James Baldwin’s Activism Can Teach Schools About Social Justice.” Education Post, 3 August 2018.

Baldwin, James. “A Talk to Teachers.” Delivered October 16, 1963, as “The Negro Child – His Self-Image”; originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963, reprinted in The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985, Saint Martins 1985. Accessed 6 December 2020

Baldwin, James and Mead, Margaret. 1971. A Rap On Race. Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott Company

Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi.

Howard, Jane. “Telling Talk from a Negro Writer.” LIFE Magazine Vol. 54, No. 21 (May 24, 1963), p 81-92, 100-102.

Ndegeocello, Meshell. “Songs of Protest & Healing: Meshell Ndegeocello on the Gospel of James Baldwin.” Tidal Magazine, 10 August 2020.

McLeod, Saul. “Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology.” Simply Psychology, 20 December 2018.

Popova, Maria. “Margaret Mead and James Baldwin on Identity, Race, the Immigrant Experience, and Why the ‘Melting Pot’ Is a Problematic Metaphor.” Brain Pickings, 26 March 2016.

Popova, Maria. “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are: James Baldwin on the Empathic Rewards of Reading and What It Means to Be an Artist.” Brain Pickings, 24 April 2017.

Smith, Clint. “James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil.” New Yorker, 23 September 2017.

Valenzuela. Beatriz E. “Black History Month: For James Baldwin, his queerness and blackness were intersectional.” Voice News, 25 February 2018.

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