Scenes from New York: A Reading from James Baldwin

Seeing as Amtrak commuter trains don’t fit my budget and I would rather put a corkscrew in my cranium then drive, a trip to New York City from Baltimore involves a 3 1/2 bus ride up I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike. This is a beneficial circumstance, as it provides a period of meditation, allowing a NYC travel time to message open the mental pores so they are willing to absorb the stimulus that’s about to come. So, even though my Bolt Bus was plugged in with Wi-Fi, instead read New York author James Baldwin‘s “The Fire Next Time.”

James Baldwin

Published in 1962, the 100+ page essay find’s Baldwin (who in the above photo oozes ’60s NY writer cool) is split into two story arcs; a reflection of his youth in Harlem as a young preacher/his relationship with Christianity and a contemplation on a dinner meeting with Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. Through those two lineages Baldwin examines American culture, African-American’s unique history and place, the civil rights movement, the hypocrisy and intoxication of religion, existentialism, life, death and living.

There are countless quotes in the book worth mulling over on a ride to New York City, but there was one in particular that knotted in my brain, as it came close to articulating my own personal philosophies on life. Toward the end of “A Fire Next Time,” Baldwin is hashing out why structures like religion, government (this is the time of the Red Russian enemy) and other institutions and cultural entities continue to hold such sway over Americans:

“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death- out to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small bacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and from which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible for the sake of those coming after us…It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant -birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we might not always think so- and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.”

As a writer it was both reassuring and disheartening to know that this mission statment had been captured in print already.

Welcome to New York indeed.

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One response to “Scenes from New York: A Reading from James Baldwin

  1. Nice, very nice. That’s actually my favorite Baldwin passage as well, though, as you deftly noted, his writing is ripe with memorable quotes. As a writer, it is humbling to confront a talent capable of articulating that which seems impossible to put into words.

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