James Baldwin: Words As Weapons

Unedited Notes/Conversation
New Orleans

You face the page and you face the consequences--of your heritage, social and sexual. This is something Jimmy--James Baldwin--taught me. There is always something enormous at stake; there is gravity in every stroke of the pen. A life is on the line, not merely words, phrases, a felicitous turn of phrase. This he taught me.

His anger provoked and repulsed some, but I always saw and respected the vast love he had for the people for whom he happened to be angry, and for whom he was fighting. The frequent charge was that he was full of hate for the white man, but I always felt that he hated the dishonest man. He knew my upbringing; he knew the rancid racism with which I had been intubated. He also knew, however, that I fought, as best I could, the education I had been given, that I had witnessed. He would always correct, always argue, but I never felt that he didn't welcome me or my friendship or my work.

To be uncomfortable around him, I think, was to admit that you were unable or unwilling to face what you believed, what you had been taught was true, and what it had done to you and to others. In this sense he was very much a seer, and long before people picked up his books, they had been affected by him, provoked by him, moved to some form of action, noble or otherwise.

There was a phrase that was very popular in the 1930s--or at least that is when it came into my consciousness--that art was a weapon. I suppose it was incumbent upon the artist to decide what the weapon was meant to do, or to destroy, or to alter, or to build. Jimmy believed that words were weapons, and they must be brilliantly crafted and burnished and then skillfully applied. He taught me so much. He was so unafraid. He built and he burnished and he struck, and people scattered but they also gathered and they learned.

It is wise to not approach the page--whether that page produces a poem or a novel or a story or a play--without there being something huge at stake, and there must be anger. Anger at what the world has done to a person or to the very soil itself. Every work that we produce must ask tough questions, and it must force its audience to provide the answers. I never seek to answer my own questions. I only pose tough ones. Or try to. This Jimmy taught me.

Color photographs are by Carl Van Vechten.

©2013 by James Grissom


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