That time James Baldwin beat the ‘blues’
In his column recalling past interviews, veteran reporter A Craig Copetas revisits conversations with the American novelist and civil rights activist, who argued that education was the only way to turn the table on those who are keeping you down.
Do the faraway events of May 4, 1970, meet your definition of an identifiable life-shattering churn – 13 seconds in which 67 rounds of military-grade ammunition killed four and wounded nine students at Kent State University in Ohio.
This is not a weary stroll down Baby Boom Lane. It is about the theory of relativity and the scientific truth that the laws of time and space operate in the same way for all of us – regardless of our location or time frame.
Although there will not be a test, take a moment to look around wherever you are, be it Beirut, Kabul, Detroit or a Palestinian refugee camp.
Can you sense the churn?
I was 212km (132 miles) south of the slaughter in Ohio. The following day, some four million other outraged American college students of equal ways and means shut down hundreds of universities across the country. The National Guard rolled in. Their ammo was live and the soldiers, many of them Vietnam veterans, flashed Saigon tattoos and fixed bayonets. Yet US President Richard M Nixon and his “silent majority” still rebuffed our protest to stop the war in Vietnam. Some 1.35 million people died during the nine-year conflict.
The Vietnam War ended in 1975 with a glut of percolating churns.
One was the realisation that the world was beginning to genuinely dislike the United States. Ronald Reagan was on the road to the White House, and many were skittish about a Hollywood actor who portrayed cowboys moving into the Oval Office.
Another was that the US – the country which led the charge to reinvigorate democracy after the defeat of fascism in World War II – had entered the 1980s confusing standard of living with quality of life; equal opportunity with institutionalised mediocrity; bravery with courage; machismo with manhood and liberty with freedom.
At the time, I was an editor at Esquire magazine. The assignment was, find out if there is a way to slay the churn. Rodney Whitaker, a teacher at the University of Texas, framed the empty canvas.
“All the misconceptions common to those who assume that justice implies equality for all, rather than equality for equals,” Whitaker explained. “The danger of America lay less in the country’s malice than in its blundering.”
I then turned to Graham Greene for some paint. During our handful of conversations, the British author of The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and his then recently published The Human Factor said the topic was not yet properly contextualised. The notes of our conversations are gone, but I kept one of the letters Greene sent to help sharpen the focus.
“I don’t object to Americans as a class of people although I have often found myself at odds with your government’s policies,” Greene wrote.
James Baldwin did not see it that way. The American novelist, civil rights activist and Copernican centre of today’s global Black Lives Matter movement spent his life battling to overcome the social, political and economic barriers generally ignored by the affluent, both at home and abroad.
Baldwin argued that the public’s acceptance of war, racism and poverty was baked into the culture, galvanising the ruling class, emboldening the churn.
Over lunch at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, Baldwin insisted education was the only weapon able to defeat the churn. “It is certain,” Baldwin told me and many others, “that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Both in his adopted France and during his many trips back to the US, Baldwin remained unfailingly devoted to educating people and promoting the cause of education. He once told me educating people might seem an obvious solution, hastening to add that it is the obvious which escapes us most.
World Bank statistics say that each year of education reduces the risk of conflict by 20 percent. UNESCO says it is clear that more than 617 million children and adolescents of primary and secondary school age do not achieve minimum proficiency levels in reading and maths. The UN agency has also recognised, the world must recruit 69 million more teachers by 2030 to meet projected demands.
Baldwin eight years before his death in 1987 handed me his manuscript on how to beat the churn. He titled it Dark Days and I edited it alongside him on the kitchen table at his brother’s apartment in Harlem.
“Education occurs in a context and has a very definite purpose,” Baldwin in part wrote and read aloud that evening. “Education can never be aimless, and it cannot occur in a vacuum. The irreducible price of learning is realizing that you do not know. One may go further and point out – as any scientist will tell you – that the more you learn, the less you know; but that means that you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice, in the relentless conundrum of your life.”
Baldwin never once mentioned the churn. He called the antagonist the “blues” and said education was the only way to turn the table on those who were keeping you down. Baldwin grabbed a pencil and scribbled a few words at the end of the typewritten manuscript. It was a line from the universally distinguished jazz poet Langston Hughes.
“This is what an education gives us the muscle to say to the powerful,” Baldwin said, rising from his chair to read Hughes’s words.
“It’s you who’ll have the blues, not me,” Baldwin thundered. “Just wait and see.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.