Black T-Shirts & James Baldwin Inua Ellams
I had heard his name many times, many years before I would read anything of his. When I began writing, most of those in my circle, the poets and novelists I looked up to, mentioned him as though he was a fallen god or a saint. I would bring this to their attention, pointing out how on the one hand they’d say things like ‘Never meet your heroes’, ‘All of art is theft’, ‘Always know your shit stinks’, but would speak of James Baldwin as though he floated above all that, as if he was an exception. They’d laugh and say, ‘No, he was just a man, like you and me, just another brother’. But they’d say so with a forced casualness that failed to hide the weight of their belief – as though his mortality made him all the more awesome, superhuman, even more precious, all the more worthy of respect; a god who chose to fall, or a saint who wore his halo reluctantly.
Since then, I have watched countless clips of him online, in interviews on The Dick Cavett Show, in conversation with Nikki Giovanni, and in documentaries. I attended a staged reconstruction of his legendary appearance at Cambridge University in 1965, where he and William F. Buckley Jr. debated the question, ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes crushed Buckley’s stylised posturing and led to a standing ovation and landslide victory in the Cambridge Union’s vote. I have also been to places he visited in Paris, walked through his neighbourhood in New York, and, on many occasions stared at photographs of him, into the large pool of his dark eyes.
I also discovered his play The Amen Corner (1954) and watched a beautiful production in 2013 at the National Theatre in London. But the first time I actually picked up and read something of his was in 2010, when working on a stage play, a short story for performance called Black T-Shirt Collection.
I was born in Jos, Nigeria in 1984, in the centre of the country, where the Muslim-dominated north meets the Christian-dominated south, where the cultural and religious tectonic plates clashed and erupted into sectarian violence – into the very conflict that forced us out of the country. I wanted to write about all this, a story to begin there, but I didn’t know how.
I knew I wanted the narrative to centre on brotherhood, to be about brothers, and I wanted each brother to represent a side of the conflict. I also wished for them to represent sides of my character and upbringing: the Inua born to a Muslim father and Christian mother, the Inua who is a manager and artist, who is big board dreamer, yet attentive to detail; only I didn’t want one to be the protagonist and the other the antagonist. All the books I had read, all the workshops I’d attended on writing taught that stories only worked where that protagonist-antagonist dynamic formed the narrative centre. I instinctively rejected that and was looking for a third way.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, the Ghanaian poet and novelist, one of those writers I looked up to, asked then if I had read James Baldwin.
No, not yet.
– In one ear, out the other, right?
No. No, There’s just so much!
– Yes! Read all of them. They are all good.
I don’t know where to start.
– Start at the beginning.
I have a deadline!
– The story you talked about last week?
– Okay. Read Sonny’s Blues.
– I have a pdf; I’ll email it to you.
Later that night, I heard a notification and flipped open my tablet. I thought it would be tickets for a concert the following day, but I saw the story from Nii and began reading as I pulled my socks off. I remember sitting on the side of my bed, expecting that I’d stop halfway down the page and go downstairs for dinner.
I still had one sock on when I finished. Thirty minutes had passed.
I lay back on the bed, sighed, deeply, deeply, held the precious breath the story had gathered into my chest, let it out slowly, then called Nii.
– You read it right?
Yes, I’m here. I read it.
– Told you.
– Good, right?
Beyond. Just beyond.
– Okay, I’m gonna quiz you on it.
I haven’t analysed it or anything.
– Then just answer as you feel.
– Come on. What was it about?
Okay. It’s about a difficult, no, complicated relationship between two brothers, in Harlem. The older brother is telling the story, he is the narrator, I guess, a teacher, but it’s not about him. It’s about his younger brother, Sonny, who has been arrested for drugs. He asks Sonny to come live with him when he gets out of jail, and the story is really about them trying to understand each other.
– Nice, what are the themes?
Themes? Nii, I’m not in school you know!
– Answer me.
Okay, I’d say… The main theme is suffering, just how hard life can be, ‘specially if you’re black in America. James doesn’t really talk about race, but everything is about race if you are black in America. It is everywhere in that story, the shadow from which the story shines. That’s another thing, it’s clearly prose he is writing but he is a poet, it is lyrical, restrained, precise language. It’s also about the power of music, escaping your past, and about family.
– You’re not wrong.
I’m not wrong?
You can’t just say I’m right?
– No. Anyway, can this help with your story?
My story… yes.
Well … I didn’t know how to write my story and put both brothers at the centre, James absolutely does that. It’s one brother writing about the other, really, and Sonny is sort of the antagonist; he makes his older brother’s peaceful life complicated because of his addiction. But the older brother is antagonising him, too, by not accepting the fact Sonny just wants to be a musician. They are both the antagonist? Maybe… maybe the world is the antagonist, the world is what makes their lives difficult, and they are both protagonists.
– Isn’t that how it always is? That’s life. Right?
– There are no real bad guys or good guys.
– Hollywood simplifies so much.
Now you say it, it’s so obvious.
– The brothers just have different motivations.
– Sometimes you need to see things written down to understand.
– That’s what good writing does.
– What else? How can this help?
I was also really struggling with structure, ‘cause I need to travel back and forth in time. I don’t wanna write chronologically, ‘cause that would be boring. James was leaping back and forth. I can try something similar, you know?
– Yup, makes sense.
– Now, let’s talk about the jazz.
Oh God, I knew you would say something.
– Of course.
You’re gonna start going on about how I should listen to Miles Davis?
– And you don’t want to? After reading that?
… Won’t lie, I did. I do. And I get why you like jazz now. I never really got it, jazz, improvising and just playing like you feel. But reading the end of the story, the older brother describing Sonny play, I felt like I got it. I really felt like I understood jazz, like, jazz has always been too abstract for me, but the older brother made it feel concrete, really, like I could reach out and touch it. James did that. It somehow went beyond language, into flesh and feeling.
– Crazy how he did that, right?
Yeah. I still don’t quite get how.
– When you do, you’ll be able to write poetry about anything.
– He made the abstract tangible. The best poems do that.
– Okay, one last question Inua.
– What’s your favourite line?
Wooooww! Okay, okay. Give me a minute.
Okay, got it. And the end, he says… wait, lemme read it to you. He says… ‘For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.’
– Yeah, it’s pretty dope.
It’s everything you know. I guess it’s also why we write? Right? There’s nothing new under the sun, but we should still tell the stories anyway. The telling is where there is joy.
– Yup. My work here is done.
Your work? You can’t take credit for that.
– I can’t?
James wrote it not you!
– And who led you to James?! You know what, send me back my pdf!
You are never getting that thing back.
– This is why Nigerians and Ghanaians can’t get along!
I knew you were gonna say something.
– Anyway, when’s your deadline.
Couple of weeks.
– Do you think you have everything you need now?
Almost, I think.
– Well, if you get lost, just read more James.
I will. Thank you.
When the play script was published, as if from a fallen god or a saint, I placed those words from James Baldwin before the drama begins, to guide future theatre makers towards what’s important in the play. They guide me to this day.
Inua Ellams is an internationally touring poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer.
We are grateful to WritersMosaic for their grant to support our James Baldwin projects. Audio versions of this essay can be found at writersmosaic.org.uk.
Top image: James Baldwin with actor Marlon Brando at a Civil Rights March in Washington DC in 1963 (credit: National Archives and Records Administration)