JAMES BALDWIN’S CROWN, OUR THRONE
August 2, 2019
James Baldwin was royalty. His tongue and pen lived two lives, that of the prophet and the king. His ability to make sense of all of these modes through language and eloquence made Shakespeare seem shallow in comparison. He didn’t have to create the tragedy — his Blackness and queerness was the tragedy. Baldwin’s majesty resided in his ability to spin gold from mud. He found his crown in Harlem during an apartheid America.
Nuance was his weapon — or scepter — of choice. That is the Black queer superpower: an active, in-the-moment practice of nuance. Baldwin always made himself available for Black modes of being that were not his own. He would talk about the Black family, what it means to be a Black father or Black mother (and argue from that space), although his own Black reality was that of a single Black, queer man. He was praised in public, but he was alone in private — having no long-time romantic relationship or children of his own. But it was this abject space of Black queerness in society that gave him a compassionate and convicted vision with which he spoke.
During a Hollywood roundtable in 1963, alongside Black royalty like Harry Bellafonte and Sidney Poiteir, Baldwin’s eyes were filled with a knowing innocence. He was sharp and filled with hope. When asked by the interviewer does he believe we’ll achieve the dream of America and national harmony that Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke about, Baldwin responded, “I certainly believe it. I certainly believe it.” Before concluding, “But it’s going to cost us.”
As I listen to these words being echoed from our now-ancestor, I think about how radical Baldwin’s optimism was. How in a world where he was witness and his body the site of unspeakable amounts of violence, he could still manage to believe there was a hope.
Once when he was musing on Baldwin’s life and work, Dr. Cornel West said it was not about “having hope, but being a hope.” Those words resonate intensely when I think about James Baldwin and his knowingness of the status of his world, but his refusal to believe it. He transcended it, articulating this poetry that would go on to guide generations of minds after him.
This optimism once felt foreign to me. How did he manage to maintain such spirit and hope in the face of such nihilism and oppression? And as soon as I question it, the answer comes: I remember one of James Baldwin’s most famous quotes, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” He suggested that there was a divine force — a cosmic mix of God and African ancestors who were enslaved — that already suffered and have been witness to our own suffering, so we might be great, so we might be a hope.
James Baldwin transcended the status of his world by remembering who he belonged to, and it is beyond any poetry or prose I could conjure to express how proud I am to now belong to him.