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Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin
Baldwin was never afraid to say it. He made me less afraid to say it too.
The air of the Republic was already rich with him when I got here. James Arthur Baldwin, the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century, was in the midst of publishing his resolute and prophetic essays and novels: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), The Amen Corner (1954), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni’s Room (1956). I arrived on planet earth in the middle of his personal and relentless assault on white supremacy and his brilliant, succinct understanding of world and American history. In every direction I turned, my ears filled a little more with what he always had to say. His words, his spirit, mattered to me. Black, gay, bejeweled, eyes like orbs searching, dancing, calling a spade a spade, in magazines and on the black-and-white TV of my youth. Baldwin, deep in thought and pulling drags from his companion cigarettes, looking his and our danger in the face and never backing down. My worldview was set in motion by this big, bold heart who understood that he had to leave his America in order to be. Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide. Baldwin was also the priceless inheritance to anybody looking for manumission from who they didn’t want or have to be. Gracious and tender, a man who had no idea or concept of his place, who nurtured conversation with Black Panthers and the white literati all in the same afternoon. So powerful and controversial was his name that one minute it was there on the speaker’s list for the great August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and then, poof, it was off. The country might have been ready to march for things they believed all God’s children should have in this life, but there were people, richly mis-educated by the Republic, who were not ready for James Baldwin to bring truth in those searing ways he always brought truth to the multitudes.
The eldest of nine, a beloved son of Harlem, his irreverent pride and trust in his own mind, his soul (privately and sometimes publicly warring), all of who he was and believed himself to be, was exposed in his first person, unlimited voice, not for sale, but vulnerable to the Republic. Baldwin’s proud sexuality, and his unwillingness to censor his understanding that sex was a foundational part of this life even in the puritanical Republic and therefore should be written, unclothed, not whispered about, not roped off in some back room, informed all of his work, but especially his poetry. Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary brilliance from both the conservative Black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned—never afraid to say it.
Only once did I see James Baldwin live and in warm, brilliant person; it was 1984, a packed house at the University of California at Berkeley. I was thirty-seven, he was sixty, and we would never meet. None of us there that night, standing shoulder to shoulder, pushed to the edge of our seats, knew that this was our last embrace with him, that we would only have him walking among us for three more years. I remember the timbre of his voice. Steadfast. Smoky. Serene. His words fell on us like a good rain. A replenishing we badly needed. All of us standing, sitting, spread out before this wise, sharp-witted, all-seeing man.
I had met James Baldwin by way of his “Sweet Lorraine,” a seventeen-hundred-and seventy-six-word loving manifesto to his friend and comrade, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry died from cancer at the age of thirty-four, soon after her great work, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, yanked the apron and head rag off the institution of the American theater, Broadway, 1959. Baldwin’s intimate remembrance became the introduction to the book of the same name, a book that, as a girl of fourteen, I was highly uncomfortable ever letting out of my sight. I was the Black girl dreaming of a writing life and Hansberry, the Black woman carving one out. Hansberry had given me two atomic oars to zephyr me further upstream: I am a writer. I am going to write. After her untimely death, I had a palpable need to still see and feel her in the world. Baldwin’s lush remembrance brought her to me in powerful living dimension. His way of seeing her, of remembering what was important about her, helped her stay with me.
I had needed Hansberry to set my determination forward for my journey. And I needed Baldwin to teach me about the power of rain.
Baldwin wrote poetry throughout his life. He wrote with an engaged, layered, facile hand. The idea being explored first cinched, then stretched out, with just enough tension to bring the light in. His language: informal, inviting; his ideas from the four corners of the earth, beginning, always, with love:
No man can have a harlot
for a lover
nor stay in bed forever
with a lie.
He must rise up
and face the morning sky
and himself, in the mirror
of his lover’s eye.
(“A Lover’s Question”)
Baldwin’s images carry their weight and we, the reader, carry their consequence. In one turn of phrase and line, something lies easy in repose; in the next, he is telling the Lord what to do; the words jump, fall in line, with great and marching verve:
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
not get carried away
by the sound of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
am beneath that water.
It falls with great force
and the light
me to the light.
Baldwin wrote as the words instructed, never allowing the critics of the Republic to tell him how or how not. They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear. He fastidiously handed that empty caricature of a Black writer back to them, tipping his hat, turning back to his sweet Harlem alley for more juice.
James Baldwin, as poet, was incessantly paying attention and always leaning into the din and hum around him, making his poems from his notes of what was found there, making his outlines, his annotations, doing his jotting down, writing from the mettle and marginalia of his life, giving commentary, scribbling, then dispatching out to the world what he knew and felt about that world. James Baldwin, as poet, was forever licking the tip of his pencil, preparing for more calculations, more inventory, moving, counting each letter being made inside the abacus of the poem. James Baldwin, as poet, never forgot what he had taught me in that seventeen-hundred-and-seventy-six-word essay—to remember where one came from. So many of the poems are dedicated back to someone who perhaps had gone the distance, perhaps had taught him about the rain: for David (x3), for Jefe, for Lena Horne, for Rico, for Berdis, for Y.S.
When the writer Cecil Brown went to see James Baldwin in Paris in the summer of 1982, he found him “busy working on a collection of poems,” quite possibly these poems. Brown reports that Baldwin would work on a poem for a while and then stop from time to time to read one aloud to him. “Staggerlee wonders” was one of those poems, and “Staggerlee wonders” opens Jimmy’s Blues, the collection he published in 1983. The poem begins with indefatigable might, setting the tone and temperature for everything else in this volume, as well as the sound and sense found throughout Baldwin’s oeuvre. “Baldwin read to me from the poem with great humor and laughter,” Brown wrote in his book Stagolee Shot Billy.
He felt that Black men in America, as the most obvious targets of white oppression, had to love each other, to warn each other, and to communicate with each other if they were to escape being defined only in reaction to that oppression. They had to seek and find in their own tradition the human qualities that white men, through their unrelenting brutality, had lost.
I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding white men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin’s use of the word nigger as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last white country the world will ever see” (Baldwin, “Notes on the House of Bondage”).
I always wonder
what they think the niggers are doing
while they, the pink and alabaster pragmatists,
and defining and re-defining and re-aligning
nobly restraining themselves, meanwhile,
from blowing up that earth
With prophetic understanding, harmony, and swing, creating his own style and using his own gauges to navigate the journey, Baldwin often wrote counter-metrically, reflecting his African, Southern, Harlem, and Paris roots. “What do you like about Emily Dickinson?” he was once asked in a Paris Review interview. His answer: “Her use of language . . . Her solitude, as well, and the style of that solitude. There is something very moving and in the best sense funny.”
James Baldwin made laughter of a certain style even as he reported the lies of the Republic. He was so aware of that other face so necessary in this life, that face that was present in all the best human dramatic monologues, the high historic Black art of laughing to keep from crying. He knew that without the blues there would be no jazz. Just as Baldwin dropped you into the fire, there he was extinguishing it with laughter.
has anyone discussed the Bomb with the niggers:
the incoherent feeling is, the less
the nigger knows about the Bomb, the better:
the lady of the house
smiles nervously in your direction
as though she had just been overheard
discussing family, or sexual secrets,
and changes the subject to Education,
or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls,
the smile saying, Don’t be dismayed.
We know how you feel. You can trust us.
Baldwin wrote poetry because he felt close to this particular form and this particular way of saying. Poetry helped thread his ideas from the essays, to the novels, to the love letters, to the book reviews, stitching images and feeling into music, back to his imagination. From the beginning of his life to the very end, I believe Baldwin saw himself more poet than anything else: The way he cared about language. The way he believed language should work. The way he understood what his friend and mentor, the great
American painter Beauford Delaney, had taught him—to look close, not just at the water but at the oil sitting there on top of the water. This reliable witnessing eye was the true value of seeing the world for what it really was and not for what someone reported, from afar, that it was.
When Baldwin took off for Switzerland in 1952, he carried recordings by Bessie Smith, and he would often fall asleep listening to them, taking her in like the sweet Black poetry she sang. It must have been her Baby don’t worry, I got you voice and their shared blues that pushed him through to finish Go Tell It on the Mountain in three months, after struggling with the story for ten years. Whenever Baldwin abandoned the music of who he was and how that sound was made, he momentarily lost his way. When he lost his way, I believe it was poetry that often brought him back. I believe he wrote poetry throughout his life because poetry brought him back to the music, back to the rain. The looking close. The understanding and presence of the oil on top of the water. Compression. Precision. The metaphor. The riff and shout. The figurative. The high notes. The blues. The reds. The whites. This soaking up. That treble clef. Bass. Baldwin could access it all—and did—with poetry.
He was standing at the bath-room mirror,
had just stepped out of the shower,
balls retracted, prick limped out of the
thinking of nothing but foam and steam,
when the bell
Baldwin integrated the power of sex and the critical dynamics of the family with ease. He spoke often and passionately about the preciousness of children, the beloved ones. He never hid from any language that engaged the human conundrum, refusing to allow the narrow world to deny him, Black, bejeweled, Harlem insurgent, demanding to add his poetic voice to all others of his day. Sometimes employing a simple rhyme scheme and rhythm, as in “The giver,” a poem dedicated to his mother, Berdis, and then,
again, giving rise to poetic ear-play in “Imagination.”
creates the situation,
and then, the situation
It may, of course,
be the other way around:
Columbus was discovered
by what he found.
In several of his last interviews you hear James Baldwin repeat something you know is on his mind: “The older you get, the more you realize the little you know.” This Black man of the Black diaspora, born in 1924, the same year that J. Edgar Hoover was appointed the new director of the FBI, forever taking stock of his life as it unfolded:
My progress report
concerning my journey to the palace of wisdom
I lack certain indispensable aptitudes.
Furthermore, it appears
that I packed the wrong things.
(“Inventory/On Being 52”)
Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems is being published in what would have been Baldwin’s—our loving, long-cussed, steadfast witness in this world’s—ninetieth year. These poems represent the notations, permutations, the Benjamin Banneker–like wonderings of a curious heart devoted to exposing tyranny, love, and the perpetual historical lies of the Republic.
In a 1961 interview, Studs Terkel asks Jimmy Baldwin after Baldwin’s first twenty years as a writer, “Who are you now?” Baldwin answers,
Who, indeed. I may be able to tell you who I am, but I am also discovering who I am not. I want to be an honest man. And I want to be a good writer. I don’t know if one ever gets to be what one wants to be. You just have to play it by ear, and pray for rain.
He never rested on any fame, award, or success. He didn’t linger in the noisy standing ovation we gave him that night in California. He didn’t need the poison of whatever it meant “to be famous” pounding at his door. Refusing to stand in any shadow, Baldwin understood that any light on his life might open some doors, but in the end it was his pounding heart, caring and remaining focused on the community, that had always defined him, that mattered. In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on Black and poor people. He loved it when people came to talk and listen to his stories, his rolling laughter, and consented to be transformed by his various arenas of language and his many forms of expression. These were friends and strangers, artists, who only wanted to feel him say what he had to say. People hungry to hear James Baldwin unabridged, before the night got too late and his devotion would make him rise and return him to the aloneness of his work, in that space he called his “torture chamber,” his study. Baldwin told the Paris Review, “Every form is different, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.” There on his desk, the next page of “ass kicking” awaited.
In 1963, James Baldwin visited San Francisco. The journey was amazingly caught on fuzzy black-and-white, educational TV in the KQED documentary Take This Hammer. One morning during his visit he found himself speaking with a group of frustrated young Black men standing there on the street. One of the young men reports, “There will never be a Negro president.” Baldwin asks him why he believes this. The young man responds, hardly catching his breath: “We can’t even get a job. How can we be president if we can’t even get a job?” You see Baldwin on camera move instantly closer to the storm raging from their ring of eyes to his. You see and feel the fire in their faces and in his. He knows this gathering storm well. He can hear the sounds of the thunder gathering deep in his ear. He has seen this same kind of lightning flash, hit, and burn down whole countries, whole neighborhoods, whole city corners, with their standing communities of young Black men. He himself has been soaked in this despair before. His inclination is to lead them away from the storm, but he’s in the storm too, and he won’t lie to them like everybody else has lied. He looks at them with great love. He can see the oil in the water on their cheeks. “There will be a Negro president,” Baldwin says calmly. “But it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.” It begins to rain. It doesn’t really, but that’s what the scene feels like to me through the camera’s grainy lens, fifty years away from Baldwin and that circle of beautiful and young Black men wanting what other young men wanted, there on that San Francisco street. It begins to rain, at first a light drizzle and next a pounding torrent, great sheets of great water, slanted and falling down from the open sky. Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry—because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves.