The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,— 205
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
The above is an excerpt from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s incomparable Renascence, which she wrote between the ages of 19 and 20, exactly my age when I had my most intimate interaction with two of the most influential souls in African-American history, both “rare as flawless chrysolite.”
Jimmy Baldwin would lean into me, knock on wood, wink and win me over time and time again. With Lorraine Hansberry looking on, one night at Small’s Paradise in the bowels of Harlem, New York, I made sacred promises. Now, over half-a-century later, I’m still trying to honor all that, each and every vow from my formative years.
One of James Baldwin’ favorite expressions was “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (that’s “the more things change , the more they stay the same” without the proper French used with the underscored words; forgive). In Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, the new documentary not only gives that expression fresh resonance, it also provides Baldwin’s prophetic voice a narrative and visual format that is at once provocative and imbued with with all the writer’s “furious passage.”
Peck’s cinematic effort lost out to the more sensationally attractive African-American O.J. (The Edelman/Waterfow pedestrian O.J.: Made In America winning the Oscar for much the same reasons that the disingenuous White Helmets stole the award for Best Short Doc). It’s all very disgusting for me personally, and indicative of where our horrid momentum is taking us all. But I can tell you that Jimmy would have fallen over in fits of laughter, his huge eyes bulging big and bursting with curses for how Hollywood and our entire cultural dynamic has enabled both major parties to continue its atrocities worldwide, ramping up the damage to unprecedented degrees.
Speaking of which, one of the “promises” I made to sweet Lorraine and Jimmy — shortly after Lorraine stormed out of a meeting with Bobby Kennedy, fulminating about how the most highly educated souls in the country were now the most arrogant and least helpful to “dark people” (not using the plural of negro note) — was that I wouldn’t let myself get “stuck” in academia… using a word that rhymes with that to describe it. In short, although I was headed to begin my career as a college professor, I swore that I would be very careful not to fall into becoming the piss poor prof pontificating at the podium forever. And on that promise I kept my word.
Even though I remained in academia for half-a-century, each and every year that I taught, counseled or mentored, I held down a blue collar gig, “to keep in touch with the so-called real world”… to quote Jimmy. And I’m glad that I did. For despite the fact that as I write this I find myself — at 74 — applying to various educational institutions and non-profits devoted to education still, my blue collar experiences have taught to me how to subject those interviewing me to a proper litmus test or two. So that I don’t get lured into that very ugly realm which both Lorraine and Jimmy paid very high prices to avoid as writers. The realm in which one sells one’s soul down the river for spotlight, salary or some such silly shit. Academic whores are very much like their counterparts in Hollywood, though — like press-ti-tudes (dudes and gals alike in all mainstream media outlets) — they often fancy that they progressive. They are not. And they’re a lot that’s very far away from what Dr. Martin Luther King screamed was necessary to change our collective lot, not candidates for helping us to bring about the radical restructuring of society.
One can make the case for neither Lorraine nor Jimmy being very popular, their commercial successes notwithstanding. Flannery O’Connor, who had her serious differences with Baldwin during the Freedom Riders period, though, would have applauded the marginalization I’m touching upon here.
“There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” Those words of Flannery’s remind me that she thought that both Lorraine and Jimmy were excellent teachers. And I try to sing today on their shoulders.
It’s an honor to have this memory to share with you in this day when we’ve turned academia* into a set of factories designed to turn out utilitarian folks who — even if they enter the arts are likely to churn out the likes of that O.J. fare — unfairly turning the stomachs of one and all. making the skin of anyone who can really appreciate Raisin in the Sun and The Fire Next Time crawl up all four walls.
*K-12 and right into graduate school in both the public and charter school realms; I’m constantly on the lookout for the grand exception. For that’s where I want to go and sing for my brothers and sisters… before we go our own ways. Where we are all headed.
Ten years after completing his work on Patrice Lumumba, Peck got down with Jimmy. And I thank God that he did, for even though the documentary has its weak sides, anything devotes so many heartbeats to Jimmy has a good shot at letting the face of God shine through.
Sing through, actually.
Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at email@example.com.