Letter To James Baldwin on his Birthday

Dear James,

Happy Birthday. Today you would have been 93, which is very old, and you might have not liked to see what has become of the world, especially the United States, after having to see Malcolm, Martin, Medgar, Fred, and many other wonderful beings leave this world in such young age. I know, it is your birthday and one ought not to spend too much time on the sad topics, however, I am living in time that it has become increasingly hard to not encounter a sad, or a violent, or a dehumanizing news every morning when I wake up, especially as a brown man. I mean, what happened to the morning kiss, cup of coffee, sound of the birds. Oh James, I hear you laughing, and saying that never was the reality, son. The thing is, I want that to be the reality, James. I want to walk down the street and I want poetry and kindness to pour like honey. But James, so many people are suffering in this country. In this country that is partly loving me, and partly keeping me in fear of being kicked out – what a troublesome love story is mine, but I won’t get into that in this letter. Oh well.. I don’t know what I will get into in this letter, but I have started writing with the notion of celebrating your birthday and talking to you just a little. Because I love you!

Dear James,

I’ll start again. Happy birthday my fellow poet, my fellow artist, you beautiful human! I hear you laughing and looking at me.. And don’t think that I forgot what you said New York City’s Community Church, you said:

“I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust of all those words because I don’t really know what they mean, any more than I really know what such words as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean. And yet one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me, when the chips are down, is that I am an artist.”

Same goes for me, there are times when someone refers to me as a poet, that word, that identity seems so far away that I can barely recognize who are they talking about, but then again, when the soul meet the bone, I am a poet, an artist, and I have a mission and I’ll use your words what that mission is:

“This is a time … when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make…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, all those confusing positions aside, how are you? How’s the weather where you live these days, do you like the food there? Have you been bleeding over that old typewriter, or you are just watching us, the young poets, bleed our words and loves and fears on the keyboards. James, truth to be told, I miss you very much. I know we didn’t know much about each other for so long, but when we met, I knew that the same way I carried Whitman in my pocket for the days of confusion on the open road, I will be carrying you on my side for the days that I look around and can’t deny certain things, that I am poet, that I am alive, that I am a brown man; beautiful and targeted.

James, back to the question of your well-being, I wonder to where and in what form you have been back since ’87. It’s hard to believe that your body has been dead for 30 years, I will be 30 soon. And in the 30 years that you have been dead, you have given more to the people than I have given in my 30 years of being alive. I guess you never died, same goes for Martin, and Malcolm, unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing for Medgar, and Fred. Partly because, I know Martin and Malcolm better, partly because the media has done anything it could have to make us forget these folks. James, I just miss you – and I know, maybe you wish I wrote you a letter like the one I wrote for Rilke, full of metaphors and encouraging words, and poetry, but truth is, James, times have changed. Or as you would put it, I have accepted that race issue in America is not something that is in a different world, it is right here at home with me.

“White people are astounded by Birmingham. Black people aren’t. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don’t want to believe, still less to act on the belief, that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country. They don’t want to realize that there is not one step, morally or actually, between Birmingham and Los Angeles.”

That was the case for me too, to an extend. And no need to hide that from you, I thought, despite being a brown man, for some reason, by virtue of living in the most progressive cities in America, or by the financial powers given to me, there’s that one step between me and the race issues. I do remember saying that I am aware of racism, but I see there’s an underlying class issue there. Sorry James, I was young, and a hot headed communist, and living in a country that everyone looked like me. I was sitting on top communist buses in protests in Turkey, smoking cigarettes with kids as brown as me. but then again,

“Not everything that is faced can be changed,
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So here I am drinking cups of espresso after espresso, washing it down with some apple juice, and dreaming about smoking cigarettes – they don’t let us smoke indoors anymore, things are a little different these days. I miss smoking indoors with my coffee while writing, but then I think it’s good for many people that we don’t do that anymore..I am not really sure, and it is not that important right now. You’d like it here, it’s a cafe and a bookstore in Washington, D.C. that runs as a not for profit organization and is politically left leaning. They give free soup and coffee to folks that can’t afford it, I am sure you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you mostly black and brown people. I was not surprised, because we have been living in a system that has been working to keep brown and black people in a stage that they can’t afford many things. From soups to rights. Still though, I appreciate the folks who run this place, they are trying, and it’s good to see they are taking care of people with kindness. Anyway, you’d like it here, I told them it’s your birthday, and they are putting up a couple of your books out in the display, and they asked me if I wanted to put this letter out in display too, I said no, it is not done yet, and I want to send it to you first, then I’ll put in on my website, which you don’t know what that is, and it doesn’t matter, people will read it, and that matters. Well I hope – I know one thing for certain though, you will read it.

Oh James, before I forget, remember when you started to write about Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar, and you never finished it, they have turn that to a major motion picture, and a book too, it has shaken things up a little, I thought you’d like to know that. I wonder what you had in mind, it did some interesting things, times are interesting James, I told you that – I went and saw the movie too, then got the book and carried it with me when I was in New Orleans and read it over and over sitting at bars and parks, like the man who newly falls in love with a woman and reads her letters over and over again, then gave it to a black man who has never read your work, but had the smile of an angel and kindness that lit up many dark streets as we stroll together talking about what it means to brown, what it means to be black in, although racially progressive, yet still white places. Those spaces, for me are spaces that I feel that I am always welcomed, and if needed protected by my white friends, but still, when I look around I cannot ignore the fact that I am one of the very few brown people there. It’s 2017 James, it’s been almost 50 years since you said this in Florida:

“Most of the white Americans I have ever encountered really, you know, had a negro friend or a negro maid or somebody in high school. But they never, you know, or rarely after school was over or whatever, you know, came to my kitchen. You know, we were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn’t know – he really does not know – what it was like for me to leave my house, you know, leave the school and go back to Harlem. He doesn’t know how negroes live.”

And James, I cannot tell you enough how much I have become aware of this, and what is harder for me, my dear, is that I do this too. I know more about the white American household than black and other brown American household – it seems to me I get caught in the stream of this wild racial and political river in America so often that sometimes all I can do is take a deep breath and preserve my energy so that river will take me to a calmer spots, because some parts of this river are so violent that many of us don’t make it out. -Oh this letter, has gone way too long and to too many directions, let me see if I came tame this beast, and perhaps I should stop drinking these damn delicious espressos.

Dear James, I miss you immensely, and I wish we could sit down at a dinner table in Italy this evening neither of us too old or too young, neither of us troubled by poverty, gunshots, or the news that Affirmative Action is racist toward the white man – (yes, can you believe it? They also removed the section 5 of the Voters Right Act of 1965, and you should have seen the immediate damage caused by that to brown and black folks. This was In 2013 – Martin would have been very very heart broken, if he was alive.) – Anyway, back to good things again, we would sit there, listen to Mediterranean, drink a couple of bottles of wine, eat some fresh seafood, and talk about art, artist, dignity, poetry, struggle, taste of food, Fred’s dimples (can you believe he was 21 when they shot him?), Martin’s voice and energy, Malcolm’s charisma (Remember how he intimated you when he came to your lecture?) – James, we would have had a grand time, and we’d ask them to not bring the phone to us regardless of what happens in the world, after all it’s your birthday old boy, enjoy it.

James, I read your lines in a poetry reading I was hosting. The lines on Artists Struggle for Integrity, and thought about what you said, who’s an artist, what is struggle, and what is integrity, and you are right, these all are about all humans, and I’d like to add that artist is just one manifestation of this being human. And in this manifestation, which happened to take a shape of a poet in me, I am hoping to give all I have to people, and hold back nothing. I know, I have told you that many times, how I struggle with the way humanity is shaped, and how our society has become so dull and ignorant, but deep down, I cannot ignore the love to being.

Thanks for being born my dear James, you have given us so much yet taken so little. In the past 30 years since you have left us, we have had many highs and lows. And in these low times now, you are the one to hold on to, and I hold on to you, like the small boy holding on to his mother’s skirt in the busy market, afraid of being lost, with eyes taking in everything, and fist clutching the assurance that if anything happens mother will be there to protect him.

Much love to you my dear – I hope you are well and in peace wherever you may be, and happiest of birthdays to you!

Truly Yours,
Washington, D.C.

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