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. However, when it comes to Baldwin, attempted facsimiles of his impact prove impossible and attempted tributes to his greatness prove useless.
Those who love Baldwin are much better off encouraging people to read his essays, experience his novels, watch his interviews and listen to his speeches. The act of doing so is far more meaningful than hearing what others have to say about him; you must meet the man for yourself. Director Raoul Peck understood this well, which is why his film about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, is comprised entirely of the esteemed storyteller’s own words. In doing so, Peck has continued the great artistic tradition of providing the artist with an ever-renewing life after death.
I recently attended a showing of the film at Cornell Cinema, as well as the faculty-led post-screening panel discussion that took place afterwards. It was a transformative and unforgettable occasion. I nodded as Dr. Woubshet elegantly described the vacuum left by the film’s almost complete omission of Baldwin’s sexuality; reflected on Dr. Sheppard’s thoughtful deconstruction of laughter as a mechanism for absorbing traumatic art; and reveled in Dr. Gaines’ deceptively calm commentary on Baldwin’s evisceration of white supremacy. But it was Dr. Rickford’s final soliloquy that left me with the most material to chew over, not to mention a kind of cynical wonder and vulnerability. I cannot do the message justice here, but suffice it to say that Professor Rickford was unflinching in his criticism of the ways in which those entrenched in these bastions of elitism often cower at power — under the guise, crucially, of challenging it.
Hearing this, I couldn’t help but wonder how many times Dr. Rickford and his peers had made such impassioned pleas to motionless masses. Even now, I wonder just how much the indomitable will of the honed black intellectual can take before yielding to the fatigue caused by yet another bout of rapturous applause, followed swiftly by self-congratulatory gestures. There is something disturbing about the sensual relationship that supposedly academic types seem to have with violence, fear and history. More bluntly, I am especially incensed by the way my white peers often flock, in droves, towards the next box to check on their own journey of enlightenment — a false enlightenment built on the idea that such displays of perceived progressivism will, in and of themselves, erode the rigid encasements entombing society. Witnessing these monotonous actions of good faith seem to me like watching someone break free from a chain-laden monolith, only to hover in uncertain stillness above those who remain entrapped. But the damage will not be undone by such inertia.
I write this even as I try to acknowledge my own hypocrisy. After all, I sometimes feel as if every second spent writing from the peace of my bedroom buries me deeper in the pretension and pedagogy that sometimes preoccupies the few black and brown folks who can afford to do so. I too have accomplished nothing, really, beyond the acquisition of knowledge and the expulsion of thought. Nonetheless, I find myself entering certain spaces with a level of unearned entitlement. This is an issue so layered and abstract that I am, even in illuminating the absurdity of it all, replicating the very same dynamics of pretension I seek here to critique.
This is why I gain so much from being home in Atlanta: The world becomes concrete to me again. My family, people, culture and history are all right there; they are my truth — and this nation’s truth, too. Back on campus, on the other hand, I can easily succumb to the intoxicating allure of my current circumstances, forgetting why I write or the limitations of my writings. So while listening to Rickford speak, I began to think about how it was that my hubris could have grown so bloated and lethargic and useless. The line between a piece of art created for the sake of flexing one’s own cerebral muscles and a piece of art created for the sake of inciting change is a difficult one to toe, and I’ve certainly ventured into the territory of the former more often than I’d like to admit.
Baldwin certainly recognized the perils of the writer’s role. Nevertheless, he always seemed to chose, with unmatched discernment, the most perfect construction of language. He had an almost preternatural sense for the dimensions of words, exerting his agency over them without beating you over the head with his vast command of the English lexicon.
All of this being said, I must confess my debts to my institution, without which my own awakening may have been delayed. After all, had I been born in the year 2000, the Black Lives Matter movement would have coincided with my formative years. Then, perhaps, the white supremacists rallying in Atlanta after Dylan Roof’s act of terror would not have seemed so bizarre to me and my beloved city, so overwhelmingly and boldly black, would not have seemed so untouchable to me. But I was not born in 2000, and those six years made quite the difference.
Thus I have a peculiar relationship with places like Cornell, because I recognize that I needed the torturous times of freshman year — the agony of allowing the world’s view of my blackness to briefly dictate my own perception — in order to unshackle myself from that perception. I know, furthermore, that every second spent here has allowed me to see realities of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, etc. that I never imagined or conceived of in my younger years.
And so, now, I must begrudgingly state that being here has helped me to become this version of Amiri Banks: The one who cannot be told anything about himself from a history book, news article, song, film, mouth, pen or any other orifice ever again without meeting that knowledge with skepticism, criticism and weariness; the one who cannot be looked down upon ever again; and, most of all, the one who relishes every opportunity to tell people what’s really good.
On that note, consider yourself lucky that I’m out of space today, because I was just getting started. I hadn’t even begun to begin to dig into the real shit, but rest assured that I will soon. I suppose this means that I’ll have to wait two weeks to pick up where I left off. So stay tuned.
Amiri Banks is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Honest A.B. appears alternate Mondays this semester.