Friday, May 28, 2021

NOTHING PERSONAL, an overlooked essay by a master of the form


Beacon Press
$10.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: James Baldwin's critique of American society at the height of the civil rights movement brings his prescient thoughts on social isolation, race, and police brutality to a new generation of readers.

Available for the first time in a stand-alone edition, Nothing Personal is Baldwin's deep probe into the American condition. Considering the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020--which were met with tear gas and rubber bullets the same year white supremacists entered the US Capitol with little resistance, openly toting flags of the Confederacy--Baldwin's documentation of his own troubled times cuts to the core of where we find ourselves today.

Baldwin's thoughts move through an interconnected range of questions, from America's fixation on eternal youth, to its refusal to recognize the past, its addiction to consumerism, and the lovelessness that fuels it in its cities and popular culture. He recounts his own encounter with police in a scene disturbingly similar to those we see today documented with ever increasing immediacy. This edition also includes a new foreword from interdisciplinary scholar Imani Perry and an afterword from noted Baldwin scholar Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Both explore and situate the essay within the broader context of Baldwin's work, the Movement for Black Lives, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the presidency of Donald Trump.

Nothing Personal is both a eulogy and a declaration of will. In bringing this work into the twenty-first century, readers new and old will take away fundamental and recurring truths about life in the US. It is both a call to action, and an appeal to love and to life.


My Review
: It is hard for me to believe that this essay was, for a long time, relegated to text around Richard Avedon's amazing photos. The fact that Avedon and Baldwin knew each other, and since high school, hadn't made my radar screens either. This is the first time I've ever seen the essay, and how I wish it wasn't.
Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

Author Baldwin was a man whose vision was clearer than most people's sight.

Possibly the best proof you can have that Baldwin, a skinny gay Black kid, was a man out of time is this:
We have all heard the bit about what a pity it was that Plymouth Rock didn't land on the Pilgrims instead of the other way around. I have never found this remark very funny. It seems wistful and vindictive to me, containing, furthermore, a very bitter truth. The inertness of that rock meant death for the Indians, enslavement for the {B}lacks, and spiritual disaster for those homeless Europeans who now call themselves Americans...

He already foresaw the gigantic changes in humor that our generation is undergoing; they were underway even then. The Smothers Brothers on their three-season comedy show sparked a revolution in what could and should be grounds for humor. It makes my eyes water to remember how much guff the "comedy" of my parents' generation desensitized them to. They were both alive before the last vestiges of vaudeville were destroyed by radio. Blackface and minstrel songs were things they heard and saw. Racism was in the air, was utterly was the time of Jim Crow laws, it was the time when lynchings were happening with regularity, and a flag was hung out in front of the NAACP Building in New York:
Baldwin, Harlem native that he was, would've seen that flag time and time again, would've associated it with his own Black body, his own maleness.
The violence was being perpetrated mainly against {B}lack men...the strangers; and so it didn't count. But, if a society permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, no one in that society is safe.

This is something I understand viscerally. The police do not, as a rule, like faggots; if one is found in any place or at any time being faggoty in pubic, they will harass you and intimidate you to the maximum extent they can get away with; if reported, their defense is "that's a lie" and I promise you your word against their words amounts to less than nothing. This is my lived experience, so arguments are not welcome.

Imani Perry, author of the Foreword to this edition of Nothing Personal, says this of our deeply American inability to believe others' experiences are real:
Then, and now: we have acquired an endless habit of the most superficial forms of self-correction, makeup to make up for our perceived inadequacy as it were, nipping, tucking, coloring, all as a displacement for the possibilities of deeper self-reflection and self-creation.

It is fuctionally impossible to believe, believe in, trust another when you don't believe in your own value to the point that you feel compelled to ask your body to endure surgeries, toxic chemicals, and endless damaging stress in order to feel you're even acceptable to look at.

James Baldwin is a writer of great and unendingly valuable insight and moral authority. He was clear-sighted, his vision of what could be was articulated from a high moral base as a former believer in Christianity, and he never once backed down from his conviction that we could reach the City upon a Hill. He was a realist, however, schooled in the rejections of his gayness and effeminacy and Blackness by even those whose job it was to love him. He didn't believe we would reach that paradisiacal state; he never let go of the unshakeable assurance that we should never, ever cease to strive after it.

Happen I agree. Happy Memorial Day long weekend.

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