August 9, 2018 at 8:00 am PDT | by David J. Johns
James Baldwin for the modern liberation movement
David J. Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, (Photo courtesy NBJC)

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” —James Baldwin

James Baldwin, arguably one of the most eloquent, truth telling novelists, poets and thought leaders ever to grace the world stage, would have turned 94, if he were still living on Aug. 2, 2018. In life, he triumphantly and publicly embraced all of his identities including being black, gay, from and of Harlem and poor. And he did this in spite of the judgement, ignorance, and danger he faced for living life unapologetically in truth.   

To be clear, while we celebrate it now, the path that Baldwin endured was not easy—he constantly and intentionally made the decision to always show up in truth and in pursuit of justice. So what would James Baldwin say to us now? How does he show up in the lives of those of us who proclaim to care about America?

Coming of age during the Jim Crow Era and maturing during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Jimmy, as he was known to those he loved, built relatable and poignant critiques of American life by examining his own life and interrogating the subtle differences that have been used by those in power to exploit and divide communities, especially Black people.

The path toward collective liberation is one where we lean into Jimmy’s insistence that we show up for each other. At a time when the nation’s “leader” uses words to divide and inflict pain, Baldwin’s legacy invites us to not only remember the power of words but to also reexamine what leadership looks like. Voting and other fundamental rights are constantly attacked; children are being ripped from their parents both at borders and in communities ravaged by poverty and toxic stress; and too few hard working Americans have actual pathways to the employment and support to fully participate in civic society.

More than fighting for air time with a Twitter thug, leaders should be racing to aid Chikesia Clemons, who was almost raped by three white male police officers who threw her naked body onto the floor of a dirty Waffle House restaurant. Or Anthony Wall who was choked by a police officer outside of a Waffle House in Warsaw, N.C. Both Anthony and Chikesia are victims of the brutal power Baldwin warned us about in books like “The Fire Next Time.”

Among Jimmy’s greatest contributions to the struggle for freedom is humanizing Black people through vivid words and pictures of their lives. As he ruminated on the complexities of relationships, he spoke to how power directly threatens the concept of justice and liberty for all. He cautioned us against allowing those in power to prevent us from standing in our truth and from working better together to dismantle the systems designed to preserve white supremacy.  These lessons are ever salient as the rights Black people have assumed to enjoy are being systematically denied, attacks that are most viscerally experienced by those of us with intersectional identities—who show up, as Baldwin did, as Black and _______.

For as long as there have been Black people there have been Black LGBTQ and same gender loving people. Baldwin described the contours of our otherwise invisible lives—naming and describing emotions intimately known only by members of our community.  During one of his most piercing interviews in 1984 with The Village Voice, Baldwin made a significant point about how queerness is experienced by Black people: “The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all Black people live.”

Baldwin aptly names the reality that Black LGBTQ/SGL people are Black first and the compounding, discriminatory reality he describes endures to date. Dominant culture has a way of forcing people of color into monolithic and one-dimensional boxes, boxes that are then weighed down by the anchors of poverty, toxic stress and trauma. 

It is this collective struggle with the social construct of “Blackness” that Jimmy underscores the importance of Black people standing together—of marginalized and oppressed people standing together, especially in the moments in which the system seeks to keep us apart. Baldwin theorized if people can understand that our fates are tethered—that our liberation is dependent upon the liberation of the least of these, we could walk further down the path toward true justice. The lesson Jimmy taught me that I hope others will learn, as well, is that none of us are free until all of us are free.

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” —James Baldwin

Now more than ever, we need social justice warriors trained in the school of Baldwin who understand the importance of speaking full truth to power, especially in the moments in which it is most inconvenient and uncomfortable. Are you registered to vote? Are you willing to help others exercise their right to vote? Does your plan include meeting with elected officials to let them know you will hold them accountable? Have you considered running for office or contributing to a campaign?

If we do nothing else, we owe it to the children who will inherit our problems to stand in truth and on the side of justice. It’s this type of radical truth telling and standing in solidarity with those who have shared experiences, sometimes shared sorrows that made Baldwin a man of the people even when he stood alone. 

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