Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access

From God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, edited by Hilton Als, which was published in March by Dancing Foxes Press and the Brooklyn Museum.

I met James Baldwin when I was about nineteen years old. I was a servant in a household. He came to that house as a party guest the night Richard Nixon was elected. I didn’t know who he was. I was just really someone off the boat. I had arrived two or three years earlier. I was still a West Indian then, and I didn’t understand anything about America. I always wanted to be an African American, but an Afri­can American as she would appear in Ebony magazine, with funny hair. And so I met this person, and everybody made a big fuss over him. He was very, very important. It was a great thing that he had come to the party. I didn’t notice that he had a different complexion from them. I was so used to seeing black people, and in fact to this day tend to think that everyone is black. But every once in a while, they tell me they’re not.

I started to write. I would make up these stories about people who lived in Harlem, even though I had never been to Harlem. It was because of him. So I met him in this way. I didn’t know he was a great writer at the time I met him; I only later came to his books and thought, That’s the writer I would be, that’s how I would write, because he writes about a people I sort of know, and I wish I could find the stories in which I wrote after him.

What I never understood until I began to immerse myself in him is that, for a writer, there are two things going on, form and content, and that the two matter most in poetry. This was all a new idea to me: that poetry works only when form and content are in perfect balance. Fiction can be imbalanced. Essays determine their own form, or the content is so powerful that the content is the form. I learned this only by reading him. As a writer, it was astonishing to me to discover these techniques, these wonderful ways of pacing, of saying things. The content of Baldwin’s essays is so powerful it’s a kind of poetry. He was writing out of a fierceness and out of love. One of the things I got from him was that an ordinary writer could just be writing about love. Love of a people. Love and sacrifices. The sacrifices he made. He should have been putting all that into these beautiful novels and making perfect novels that would have made John Updike’s Rabbit kill himself.

The dreams in Another Country are just amazing. That is what the whole novel should be. It’s just not interesting to see someone light the barbecue fire, but he felt he had to do that. It must have seemed that it was an example of the normal life a Negro person lives. See, they make barbecues, they broil ribs, they sit down at the table, the table is set. But we don’t care about that, at least I don’t care that they’re normal in that way. I know they’re human beings. I want to see something else. He’s not really interested in the minutiae either, the gathering of the dust. He really wants to be Jeremiah. He wants to write this extraordinary kind of thing that comes out only in dreams. But in his essays, he gets to the real meat and potatoes and the real reason for a human being to be. Why are we? is something that you can see him asking. Why are we here? Who are we? What does this mean? Why are you doing this? What is evil? What is good? But I always feel that his main project, his main impulse, was to write novels, to write fiction, and that this horrible situation­—the oppression, the violations of our society­—got in his way. And that, I feel, is unforgivable. I feel there is a great artist of another kind that was not allowed to be.

When we make art, we don’t know how it will work out, what it will mean. The writing, the novels, the essays: he did them in a place and in a time, in a country, that has no real love of certain people and certain things and no real love of literature, no real love of black people doing anything, really, that can’t be appropriated. We must remember that there are a great many things that African Americans have done, making something out of the despair and the horror of the mess they found themselves in, and that they’ve been simply lifted up out of their culture. The blind faith he had in just saying these things, writing these things, doing, living this life and not knowing how it would go. Would it be remembered? Would it vanish? He got inspiration, it seems to me, from the essential life that was going on in the country at the time, the essential life of America, which is something Americans would like to forget. The essential existence of America is the African American.

More from

| View All Issues |

April 1996

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now