A few weeks ago, I gave a speech at the State Theatre in downtown Ithaca as part of Martin Luther King’s Commemoration. Afterwards, I received a standing ovation from the crowd, which I found to be decidedly insufferable. I suspect that my aversion to the applause was in part because I am not nearly as humble as advertised, so I feel uncomfortable with any adulation from the outside world — my ego is large enough already. More importantly, though, experience has taught me to regard hollow gestures like the clapping of hands with a well-warranted cynicism. After all, no one in that room should have been able to listen to what I had to say that evening, go home and still sleep well.
No one other than James Baldwin could have ever hoped to deliver a proper eulogy to James Baldwin, but I find it incredibly ironic that my namesake ended up accepting the mantle. Amiri Baraka was an embattled and deeply flawed artist, and in reading his work, I have often found myself rapidly vacillating between vehement disapproval and mesmerized admiration. What he had to say about the man I aspire to be like, though, elicited neither of these responses. “Jimmy Baldwin created [contemporary American speech] so we could speak to each other at unimaginable intensities of feeling, so we could make sense to each other at higher and higher tempos,” wrote Baraka. For most anyone else, words like these would serve as poetic and profound excerpts from a worthy homage.
Well, here we are. Serendipitous opportunities notwithstanding, I have exactly seven columns remaining. And while the international state of affairs has certainly given me plenty of material for the next six, I will need more time to digest and dissect all of that before writing. In the meantime, I find myself reflecting on my time at home in Atlanta. Those close to me know that I could easily write a book about all the thoughts, observations and emotions that result from my infrequent excursions there, but my most recent return found me thinking a lot about language.
On Thursday night, I had a conversation with a black graduate student in which he described how he has spent the semester reeling from an endless onslaught of racist bullshit from faculty and colleagues, along with a dreadful display of apathy on the part of his department. In response to my friend’s plight, his committee masked a self-preservationist agenda with gallingly tepid concern, conveying in the most unrepentant of terms that the program’s reputation superseded a black student’s right to be treated with dignity or humanity. In recounting the events to me, my friend described the rest of the country — or, at least, the rest of the country’s black people — as having finally caught up to his level of silently subdued rage and chronic uneasiness with those who claim to share his values or support his causes. And though he uttered this sentiment in an understated, almost humorous way, it struck me as simultaneously tragic, profound and disquieting. Indeed, I have spent the past few days teetering on the precipice between a stubborn commitment to love and a desire to recoil from everyone and everything.
In the mornings, like most people, I wake up. Then, begrudgingly, I rouse my attendant devices. The laptop, which contains a bevy of unused words, unheard songs, unseen films and unedited stories, blares lascivious light into my eyes, even though I have no time to indulge its temptations. This recognition of my inability to do so is a point I’ve beleaguered many times now, yet it does little for my grumbles and gripes with Cornell’s creative impediments. In this sense, I continue to wonder if I will ever acquire the gumption and audacity to write how I truly feel, and what I truly want.
I’m taking Intro to Japanese (six credits). My German, I now realize, is significantly better than I thought. I have an ongoing collection of observations that I’ve made of this stunning campus and all its life. They are in disarray, just like my overstuffed email inbox. Yesterday, while parsing through a word document, in which I store all my potential stories, I discovered that over 60 (!) pages were devoted purely to good words that I had come across.
I’ve been telling people for a while now that I fear I may be outgrowing my column, and that fear was almost confirmed in the early stages of writing this one. As I rummaged through the dozens of pages in my “Sun Columns” document, I found that many of the ideas/thoughts there failed to strike me with any kind of zest or zeal for transmitting them to print. It’s as if the would-be incisive ingredients of my metaphorical ink had been reduced to a sparse collection of watered down pencil shavings and stale, rehashed themes. I realized that — in spite of all the demons I’ve exorcised using the style on which I have relied for over two years — the time had come for me to slough off some of my inhibitions and mold the medium into what I needed it to be… or else I would soon become unfulfilled. And so, Editor willing, I will commence with doing just that.
In my last column, I wrote at length about the truth. Operating with the definition used there, I would like to expand on what it can actually look like to talk about the truth. Since I am a cynical realist at heart, I am not going to elaborate on the bright side of this endeavor: those resplendent moments of success and growth, which are bound to happen because of how elegantly they perpetuate themselves. Rather, I will focus today on the moments when truth-sharing seems to fail. Sometimes, the talks I have with others about the truth of the world don’t go the way I had hoped.
If someone were to misread one of my pieces, they might mistakenly assume that I am an angry or unhappy person. Yet anyone who knows me must know, I hope, that this couldn’t be further from the truth. While I certainly have every right to be or feel angry (and let’s not get that twisted), I am actually just an unflinchingly honest person — or, at least, I try to be. I harbor no bitterness in my heart, only an irrepressible impulse towards love and truth — love and truth, I reiterate, because the former is incomplete without the latter. Please, let me explain.
Although I’ve never had the slightest interest in being white, I’ve sometimes wondered what it might be like to exist amongst white people under the same cover of racial subterfuge. Then again, I suppose I don’t really need to wonder. The implications of whiteness remain a secret only to the white people who would bristle or sneer at such a notion — and, perhaps more importantly, have long since ceased to be a secret for any person of color who has traversed the cavernous, perilous chambers of an overwhelmingly white world. Yet, beyond this, I realize that — in a way — I already have an intimate, almost intuitive understanding of being white. After all, I am a man.