dverse · poetry · politics

To Mr. James Baldwin, With Love

James Baldwin

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Anmol is hosting dVerse this evening.  The topic tonight is privilege.  Anmol says:

You can approach the idea of privilege in different ways. You can either seek inspiration from these poets and their poems or reflect upon your own privileges and share them through a tapestry of images and metaphors along with a certain regard to what these privileges stand for in our society. You can also write about a cause which has personal meaning or significance for you — gender equality (women, transgender, and other non-binary identities), movements like Black Lives Matter & Me Too, uprooting class and caste divides, lgbtq+ rights, et al — keeping this one word in your consideration.

Last night I watched the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro”, which is based on James Baldwin’s proposed book about the deaths of 3 of his friends and civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and how each of them were murdered within 5 years time. The format of the movie was video clips of Baldwin himself speaking and mixed media with Samuel L Jackson narrating passages from Baldwin’s work.

My free verse poem is written from the perspective of Mr. James Baldwin, where no disrespect is meant, in that I could never see things from his perspective.  It is written with sorrow and with love and admiration.

Update 2/20/19:  I received excellent feedback from Sabio Lantz and Bjorn Rudberg on the format and content and decided to rework it in light of the feedback.  The revised version feels more complete to me.

Update 2, 2/20/19:  I’ve changed this a few times since yesterday. Now it is James, in an open message to God. It may change yet again, but here is its form for now.

God you’re a sick bastard, you know.

You gave me brains and a heart as big as the sky.

You saw fit to put me under the tender tutelage of a kind white woman.

Like a black duckling, I imprinted on her and flourished as the son of her white light,

Knowing that only later would I learn she was called race traitor,

hated by her own kind. That I would learn about the rest, rotten inside and out,

on a mission to erase us, keep our necks under their boots, or silenced, in the ghettos.

Each time I walked past the open caskets of the prophets who once breathed

to lead us from our terminal, relegated status of scapegoated other,

again saw the sorrow-drenched faces of their children, the anguish of their loved ones,

my wings weighed oh so heavy, as you know.

You knew what you had done to me. Knew I, now a raging black swan,

could strike them down with the laser beams in my eyes and words –

and knew if I did, no doubt, my blood would also soon stain balconies and carports.

These thoughts weighed heavily, as you know.

Then, my pen held steadfast and true, tempered with strange empathy for the monsters.

Sloughing the monsters’ burden from my wings, my sky-sized heart kept beating

with the blood of the dead – onward I flew, alive, my aim true.

 

 

78 thoughts on “To Mr. James Baldwin, With Love

  1. If empathy is imagining yourself in another persons shoes you have done and excellent job. It doesn’t mean we can feel exactly what the other person felt or thought, but just trying is a step toward healing. Your poem is powerful and beautifully written.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I borrowed it from my local library. There is also a short companion book to go with it. I’m about to read that as well. It’s pretty intense, so be prepared.

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    1. Is it a song or a book? He was in the documentary, singing. I forgot which one of the 3 men had been killed at that point, but he was in the thick of it. Like he could have gotten his head busted open at any time.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Christine. It is unforgettable. I’m reading the guidebook now, which is mostly a book of quotes with pictures, but in the front it talks about what a daunting task it was to sort through everything they had, including a bundle of notes that Baldwin took about what he wanted to be in his book about the 3 murdered leaders/friends and put it in a coherent form, which is think they did an excellent job.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lisa if you ever get a chance to visit DC, the African American Museum is a must. Hard to get tickets but worth applying for in advance. I cried the whole time we were there. It tells the story from Slave ships all the way to modern day music and film.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, this narrative is so potent and significant. Baldwin’s voice and reason are needed today, more than ever perhaps, because when the legislature has done its job, we forget to check or choose to ignore if the society is actually following on those footsteps.
    It’s interesting how you took the persona and shared a perspective which is eventually about your identity and understanding of it. Great job!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I haven’t seen this documentary, Jade, and I’m not sure if it’s available in the UK, but it looks fascinating. What I’ve read of Baldwin’s work has touched me. I like how you have written from his perspective and you’ve achieved the right tone. Well done for the ‘heart as big as the sky’ and the way you repeat it in the final lines as a sky-sized heart that kept beating with the blood of the dead. I also like the contrast of ‘black duckling’ and ‘son of her white light’. A sad story with the wonderful outcome of a steadfast pen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sabio, I appreciate your feedback. I don’t know all of the details of his history, but the allusions come from images and quoted passages from the documentary. I will read your “tiny-lined poems” post. As far as this tiny-lined poem, I was more interested in getting the feelings down and the images purged from my mind than focusing on form. When I get better at writing poetry, maybe the ability will improve to do both. Thank you again.

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      1. Cool. I just took some time and got rid of all the spacing, and it made it much easier to read for me. Others may love your tiny lined spaced poem. But here is the version much easier for me:
        ——————————————————
        God’s a sick bastard, you know. He gave me brains and a heart as big as the sky.
        He saw fit to put me in the tender care of a kind white woman as a teacher.
        Like a black duckling, I imprinted on her and flourished as the son of her white light.

        Only later did I learn she was a race traitor and
        hated by her own kind –the rest, rotten inside and out, on a mission to rub us out, or at least keep our necks under their boots —or in ropes, in trees.

        God knew this raging black swan would strike them down with the laser beams in my eyes and words – and then my blood would also stain balconies and carports.

        Instead my pen held steadfast and true, tempered with empathy for the monsters. My sky-sized heart kept beating with the blood of the dead.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Some folks feel that spacing, stanzas, broken sentences and dropped pronouns or articles are what make a poem, but I don’t. They may help a few poems, but mostly I just see people imitating and actually hurting their writing more than helping. But that is just my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You prove your point with this poem. If a person is distraught, feeling disjointed, broken, maybe the form fits the words better, even if not more effective necessarily…

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      4. Yes, I like it better but you processor seems to still put to many unnecessary empty line returns. May it is hard for you to control. Look at the way I did it and your present result.
        Oh, and if you prefer it all broken up into tiny lines, by all means do as you wish. I’m going to sign off now. email me if you need more feedback. Best Wishes

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I love so much how you tries to walk into the mind of someone else… maybe there still is something in the we can portray the emotions of being outcast…

    The perspective of his teacher sounds like something easier to understand, and race traitor is such a strong word… bringing back memories of Harper Lee for instance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bjorn, thank you very much for your eye on this. Maybe I missed the forest for the trees on the outcast part. Will look at it again in those eyes and use the format Sabio so graciously reshaped the words with. About Harper Lee, she only wrote the one book, then a huge expanse of time until the one at the end. It makes me wonder if such labeling had something to do with it?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very elegantly done, Jade. There’s one line where I loose scansion and I have a little trouble with keeping the phrasing:
    to lead us from our terminal, relegated status of scapegoated other,

    Have you read this aloud? I’ve got a nudge in my brain saying that it might be smoother as “terminally relegated status” rather than “terminal, relegated.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. And I like yours 🙂 When I think of reshuffling the priorities I’m reminded of that song by Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”… There’s got to be a rudder/navigator in there somewhere?

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I must see this film! Thank you!
    In 1972 – 1974 I created and taught a course in African American Literature in a rural all-white Iowa high school. Included in required reading was The Autobiography of Malcom X, To Be a Slave by Julius Lester, and poetry by Langston Hughes — among other required assigments. Each student also had to choose one book among many I had on my shelf, to read and write a comprehensive analysis about it and their reaction to it. Included were Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name by Baldwin; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Black Like Me.

    Your line “Sloughing the monsters’ burden from my wings,” is quite amazing when one thinks of Baldwin’s life and taking up the pen. This is an excellent write!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lillian, thank you for your insight on the poem. I sincerely commend you for teaching what you taught at the school. It is what education should be all about. I haven’t read any of those books, but I should. I did read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by him and it profoundly affected me. His eloquence is astounding in how he tells his life story. I need to learn more about Medgar Evens (he’s just a name to me now) as well as Malcolm X. I’ve read some of MLK Jr.’s writings and am most familiar with him.

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