James Baldwin: Truthsayer
Truthsayer: A person who speaks the truth, especially when the truth is contrary to conventional wisdom and goes against the norm.(Source: Urban Dictionary)
James Baldwin’s name resonates down the ages, transcending generations and geography. Activists quote his speeches, artists rise to reach his heights, academics reference his work. Be it as novelist, playwright or essayist, his words excoriated those who questioned the notion of racism. With his unique staccato delivery as a social commentator, he had audiences hanging onto his every word.
As a young reader I was still naïvely focused on individual acts of racism, as yet unable to connect the structural dots. His words, like fine red wine, grew on me with maturity and multiple top-ups. The causal roots of centuries of inherited trauma only dawned on me after I needed deeper answers to a divided UK. Graffiti and politicians told me to go home yet did not care that the reason I had been born here was because their forefathers had been in foreign lands. Racist attacks from skinheads, police SUS laws and mass unemployment added to my trauma. One of my therapies to quell my rage was travel, first through literary expeditions across the African Diaspora, then in person to explore my ancestral roots and family connections.
Baldwin resonated with me as the outsider who grew up Black, poor and angry. He had a diction that Black people viewed with suspicion at best and at worst to court liberal white elites. His non-poster boy looks spanned eras from Cassius Clay to Harry Belafonte and from Marvin Gaye to Muhammad Ali’s rebirth. In the swinging 1960s, a same-sex relationship could see you jailed in Britain. In Black America, Baldwin’s sexuality would see him socially isolated, preventing him from being held with the same high regard as other leaders of his time. There have been few better qualified than the son of a preacher man to pronounce on the subject of race equality.
One of his most memorable encounters came in a 1965 Cambridge debate. William Buckley was not a caricature southerner like Sheriff Bull Connor. However, his patriarchal white conservative stance, effectively calling for a ‘go slow’ on desegregation, was just as insidious as the water cannons Connor used on Black schoolchildren. It was met with Baldwin’s customary fire. Four hundred years is surely long enough to conclude such injustice. Sadly, for many of us it feels as if this debate is just restarting.
Baldwin’s wanderlust also appealed to me. In my travels to understand Black America, his friendship and commentary on three iconic civil right leaders would light my path. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers were men who shared his conviction for truth and justice – as well as FBI surveillance. All three were assassinated before they reached 40 years old, something that haunted Baldwin. Nearly a half century later I would visit their homes, where they marched and their places of worship, where they spoke.
New York City was the first place I visited beyond Britain during the 1980s, to see family. I visited Baldwin’s and Malcolm X’s ‘Harlem Ghetto’ as gentrification began to arrive. Its history still survives, from Strivers’ Row to the backdrop of Blaxploitation movies such as Shaft. The Apollo Theatre stands like a beacon built just after legends such as Zora Neale Hurston, Alain LeRoy Locke and Langston Hughes were constructing the Harlem Renaissance. The Schomburg Center preserves this history like a Black vault of archival treasure. It holds a library, visiting exhibitions and a mini theatre and takes pride in welcoming scholars from across the world for research on the African diaspora. After dark, the Red Rooster restaurant can provide a musical dip and culinary feast into Harlem’s soulful past
It was Baldwin’s visits to the Deep South, where he felt both a stranger and at home, which provided me with a rich seam of answers. In I Am Not Your Negro Baldwin said, ‘History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we are literally criminals.’ ‘Southland’ is what Dr King called the Deep South in his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail. The title of Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country is more fitting. It is a place as familiar as it is strange, where its dark past is suddenly illuminated by its terrain and people.
Visits to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, where I volunteered post-Hurricane Katrina, remind me of my parents’ homeland in Guyana. The homes on stilts erected above ground – tell-tale signs of poverty – feel a world away from nearby Bourbon Street. The various branches of the Black church, including Dr King’s in Atlanta and Montgomery, ring out with the spirit that my mother and sister share in their London churches. Museums and memorials that commemorated the struggle remind you of lives violently stolen. These include the Church of the Four Little Girls complete with Welsh Window in Birmingham, Alabama, and a sense of exhilaration passes you as you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge that marks Sunday Bloody Sunday in Selma. The economic riches that Baldwin highlighted as building America from enslaved riches are seen in the opulent housing in Charleston and Savannah. In Jackson, Medgar Evers’ home has been turned into a national monument, but in every direction in Mississippi, for all its beauty, I feel the ghosts of Emmett Till and the civil rights campaigners lynched whisper to me not to forget them. In No Name in the Street, Baldwin amplifies this with these haunting words on the Deep South: ‘There is the great vast, brooding and welcoming blood-stained land beautiful enough to astonish and break the heart. Every Black man had been scarred as in some tribal rite; and every white man had been maimed.’
Baldwin was most scathing not of the slavery and racism in America, but what he termed ‘The Lie’ America tells itself about its past. Whilst white America fought to declare itself free of King George’s III tyranny, it kept its Black citizens enslaved and the indigenous peoples in purgatory. Baldwin’s uncomfortable truths included Jim Crow segregation laws, the true costs of poverty (‘it’s expensive to be poor’), police brutality and mass incarnation.
One wonders what he would have made of social media and its iterations of falsehoods, misinformation, disinformation and alternative facts. The US 2020 elections are still disputed by millions, manifesting in the January Coup on the Capitol. For those who sneer ‘Only in America’, I refer them to Brexit and lies spoken by prime ministers and presidents that range from sexual scandals to twenty-first century wars. The current cost-of-living crisis has its roots in austerity policies that closed down libraries, Sure Start programmes, youth clubs and domestic abuse shelters. Climate change indifference and the responses of Black Indigenous People of Colour activists in the developing world need our urgent attention. Deliberate and willful lies are now industrialised as leaders use Nazi nationalists and question identity as reasons for war.
Far from landing on a strip of common ground, we appear to moving further apart. In Britain the use of culture wars to silence attempts to examine our history have become a political football. George Floyd’s brutal murder was not in vain. Within days, Colston’s statue fell in my home city of Bristol. The debates globally for social reparations and justice continue as the evidence of the riches brought from the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Afrikans continues to grow.
As for me? To pretend I’m not a child of the empire and the west would be to lie to myself. Worse, it would be a lie to my ancestral past and their sacrifices that have guided my achievements. Only by taking a critical lens to our complex challenges as well as our collective complicated contributions can we accept universal truths.
You can still find truthsayers at work today. Sadly, less in evidence, ridiculed, bullied and some in need of bodyguards. I salute Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who has used hip hop as an educational divining rod as the genre celebrates 50 years of global cultural influence. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr, currently fighting against costs and legal action designed to silence her. Baldwin’s closest heir, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I challenge you not just to find your own moral truth but also to voice it in support of others. That would be the most fitting tribute to James Baldwin’s life and work.
Biography: Roger Griffith MBE, Honorary Doctor of Art, is an author, UWE Bristol lecturer and CEO of Creative Connex CIC. He published his first book, My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House, in 2015 and is currently researching and writing his second, Reflections Across A New Black Atlantic.