I first read James Baldwin while on a greyhound bus heading to the U.S. south. It was not my first trip to the south, only the first time I traveled there on my own. Something about the many-hour journey from Pittsburgh to the southmost corner of North Carolina lingers as a sense of horror, even as no single incident stains memory. Baldwin’s prose felt feverish, cloistered, horrifying, and unpleasant. The church cadences so many readers love felt killing, marking, perhaps, my own increasing distance from organized religion.
Another journey intrudes, also on a bus, prisoners being picked up, deposited, working on the road.
In memory, cloistered Harlem transformed into a lynching south, a transformation so effective that when I finally re-encountered Go Tell it on the Mountain, it was utterly unfamiliar. And, despite my best efforts as a reader, a teacher, and an examiner, I simply cannot engage the final ecstatic section of the novel.
Perhaps that early journey set a pattern, for I now read Baldwin as I travel. I return over and over to Nobody Knows My Name, essays written from exile and of exile, the writer away from his country and the writer in his country. Here, as perhaps nowhere else, Baldwin wrestles with a sense of deracinating belonging, even as he insists on attachment. This is, I must confess, my favorite Baldwin prose collection.
I am in South Africa—a south once forbidden.
South Africa lives in the history of my legal documents, my legal possibilities, as the forbidden. My very first passport included a large stamp that forbade travel to South Africa. South Africa was impossible—the place where movement and imagination could not go, the land on which one could not step. I do not yet know how to think of this material history of South Africa’s presence in my life—that passport has been replaced; I am not sure where it is, even as the sense of “no” persists—I walk with the uneasy sense that lingers from that forbidding page in a long-expired passport.
Back in Nairobi, writing becomes difficult again, the words I imagined in South Africa dry up, as it rains, as Somalis remain locked up in Kasarani—a sports stadium, now officially termed a prison, functioning as a concentration camp. Catching up with South African news, I see homes are being destroyed, barbed wire used to control access. It happened while I was there—I did not know. The South Africa of my childhood—forbidden, dangerous, destructive.
In the late 90s, I traveled south to meet Baldwin’s ghosts. Now, I travel south to re-encounter differently familiar ghosts—the walking unspoken, the known-unknowing.
At the heart of Baldwin’s “A Fly in the Buttermilk” is a young man, “G.” Baldwin describes him as quiet. G.’s mother describes him as brilliant. Fifteen year old G. has an “unboyish laugh,” understands, if only partially, his role in an unfolding history of desegregation. Baldwin speaks with G.’s mother and, occasionally, G. answers a question, aware that his mother is in the room. The account is saturated with the silence of an unfolding present, a precarious present, a present that might not have a future.
interview characters who
slide in and out of books and essays
an initial here, a brief description,
these fragments around which
so much swirls
Perhaps G. comes to mind because I was in what was described (in one way or another) as a de-segregating institution, an institution with more black students from other African countries than from its own. And while moments of Bennetton diversity flashed here and there, it was clear that it was Bennetton diversity. I could not shake the sense that I had gone south, a place of a familiar unfolding. I felt caught in a too-familiar mapping of the public, noting which intimacies were visible, possible, mentioned.
To read Baldwin is to enter a particular emotional landscape—not rage, for me, but longing. It is to become expectant, even vulnerable. To be open to encountering the world. Well-cultivated armor does not simply disappear, but chinks are allowed to linger, if only briefly.
Nairobi continues to dry up my words. To make chinks impossible. Already, I feel the armor re-arming itself, the suffocating embrace of what might make survival possible. Here, I return to Audre Lorde. To imagining survival.