Here is the story.
A tale of tunnels both inherited and imagined. It is a gallery erected on the hollow bones of 26 letters and a spatterng of commas.
It is also a story of matches. The first time it was pried from the fingers of a dreamer, it was the story of light that rose, fell, crashed: a flood to cover everything.
The good kind. The kind reminiscent of the promise that by the blood you shall be washed clean, born again.
This is a story of reading James Baldwin, of trying to read Baldwin; because Baldwin is not so much read as experienced.
Experienced not as a flood of light to launder the spirit, but the small impossibility of the brilliance that the thinness of a match can carry.
‘The daylight may always come, but it does not come for everybody and it does not come on time,’ James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
This is the story: we love and we cry, we laugh, and we hurt…and heal, sometimes. We are lost in tunnels and the only shield we have between ourselves and a darkness so heavy it suffocates is one box of matches, not even full.
I read Baldwin how I imagine other people read scripture, how the philosopher’s practiced alchemy: in search of something. And I have always found it because he is one of the few writers who wield hope as a kind of defiance.
You can taste it sometimes when you read him, that his belief is a rebellion. He knows what we all know, what we don’t want to know, that the fight we wage each morning may ultimately be lost. Yet still, we must grasp our spears and face it. Face it at the risk of everything.
‘While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,’ James Baldwin, Sonny’s Blues.
The story is always the same. We live. We learn and relearn how to breathe. We are sad, and sometimes we are so sad it feels like that is all we are, a constellation of all the world’s despair.
Other times we are a longing. A longing for things that make us ache with the depth of a well the world drowned in.
We are a prayer when all else escapes us, a sustained plea trapped on the lips. A single note held, pulled, and stretched on the string of a cello so it sounds like all the world’s caves have raised one voice in mourning.
But we also laugh, don’t we? And when we do all the light returns and we forget that we have ever known pain, or loss, or longing.
We love and we fuck, and we leave…or we stay. And we love again, with wonder, like we have not loved before, like we will not love again.
And sometimes we lose ourselves in the spaces between the world where the carvers forgot to fill.
What has all this to do with Baldwin? Everything and nothing. He himself said that he only serves as a witness.
But why do you read Baldwin if you read Baldwin at all? To remember that most times, perhaps all the time, hope is an act of defiance. Against what is visible, what is tangible and what is remembered.
It is not a turning away or a denial of the suffering that twines around the roots of the world. It is an acknowledgment of all the ways that we can fall, but it remains a call to walk, to leap, to run in spite and despite.
‘Renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not—safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope—the entire possibility—of freedom disappears,’ James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.
The truth? Nobody knows, you understand? Yet we try. That is all.
So yes, if you’ve made it this far, this is why to read Baldwin: to remember, to know, that hope is also an act of defiance. Perhaps our only true meaningful rebellion.
Cover art by Bisa Butler.