James Baldwin in My Living Room

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On a rainy afternoon, when I was nine, I discovered James Baldwin in my living room.  I don’t know when he got there, nor do I know how long he’d been sitting in the green fan-back chair. No one knew.  He sat quietly, perhaps for years, pressed firmly into a corner. He was immediately familiar, like the quiet uncle you always listen to despite his silence; the uncle you always knew knew.

***

In my childhood home were two bookshelves built into a relatively large  mantle and centered by  a good-sized wood-burning fireplace.  Measuring three feet high and five feet wide, the shelves were to become the basis for an education I could never fully obtain in a ‘traditional’ school. My parents knew this, I believe, and patiently (as parents will do) waited for me to discover it as well.  Medical texts, Reader’s Digest short story anthologies (I discover Joseph Conrad, Richard Bach, and Richard Adams in those books), the World Book Encyclopedia  (didn’t every home have these?),  and an array of literary masterpieces by Michener, Puzo, Walker, Morrison, Angelou, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Voltaire, Fanon, Cleaver and others, filled the shelves and kept me thoroughly mystified.

I’d finger through my mother’s medical books with the nonsensical desire to decipher the Latin terms for the festering diseases and graphically depicted body parts presented on each page. Equally, profoundly, and perhaps sadistically, I shuttered, horrified by the images of cancerous skin eruptions, elephantiasis, and other inexplicable photographs that would turn my stomach and leave me questioning (and diagnosing) every odd-looking mark on my own skin or every fundamental ache I felt. The interest in these books and pictures never lasted too long.

But the other books, those my parents read, the novels, were the ones that I wanted most to read too. They were filled with magical and forbidden language and,  if only because I could not understand their complex content well, I yearned for them with insatiable hunger. Carefully, one-by-one, I pulled them from the shelf, opened the covers and instantaneously begin this anticipated adventure. But, I found myself getting lost (literally) by the first paragraph. Unfortunately, because of my growing frustration, because I was unable to comprehend the profound etymological level on which these writers were functioning, because most of the books, during those early attention deficit years, were elemental; something different –inexplicable– my interest waned. I’d return to the shelf, put the book back into its ‘reserved’ space and hope.

From the corner of my eye, like an intense flash of light,  I noticed the small framed man with the welcoming smile and bulbous eyes, sitting, placidly. He said nothing at first, but his smile was shouting. He sat straighter and crossed his legs so deeply they became one.

Hello Joseph. I’m James.

James?

He nodded and turned his eyes toward the book shelf several times. I followed him; the directions given by his glance. I’d touch a book and he’d shake his head. His eyes told me that he’d let me know.

The Mountain: Go Tell It

Hidden  deep in the far corner of the shelf  were two paperback books, which, because of their positioning, I consistently overlooked. There was also a weathered Holy Bible – The King James Version (the irony) that I was convinced possessed the spirits of a dozen generations; a book I never touched, fearing that some adolescent deed I had previously done would send electrical waves through my soul and render me damned to hell, or trapped in this earthly purgatory forever. The cover resemble bark; dark, wrinkled, sun-bathed field worker skin, its withered pages sang gospel hymns long forgotten. It moaned wordless chants that made tears spring from my eyes, the sun and moon shine brighter, and the wind blow mysteriously harder.

go tell 2

So, I pulled from the tight corner the thinner of the two books: Go Tell It On The Mountain. The cover was burgundy, black and white; the image of  a woman standing outside of a storefront church (I think). I was curious. Baldwin nodded his approval. There were Black people on the cover. Black like me, and, regardless of the title, the book did not seem to be all that religious. The author was… no… seriously?… James?

I studied the face on the back cover of the book, and looked to the face sitting in my living room. I returned to the picture, then back to the face. Coincidence? And on a rainy summer evening, with the book free from its nest, I lay prone beneath the glow of a yellow-white light and an opened soul. From the very first paragraph, I knew that there was no other way to read a Baldwin novel. I knew that there would never be another  book that gripped my young and untested sensibilities like this book did.  I glance up at him. He simply watched me, smiled and waited.

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”

I read Go Tell It… ravenously; angry that after all of this time,  James Baldwin was always there, in my living room, waiting – ready to answer the questions that no one else seemed able to; angry that the novel was so deeply hidden and so wanting. I was angry that Baldwin was there to explain the cup of tremble and the thrashing floor,  the saints and sinners and the unspoken urges that scared the shit out of me every time they awakened, brought both comfort and anxiety. But Go Tell..., each line from the book encouraged a smile, a frown, or a glimpse into the unknown; a glimpse into what I saw but did not understand. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about this amazing saga, by this amazing man, who was sitting in my living room, quietly reading his book with me. I was eager to walk them through Harlem, church, abuse, love and hatred; to introduce them to James.

Baldwin rested his chin on his knuckles and eyed me closely. He didn’t blink. He didn’t smile. He sat, silently, as he had those many months, perhaps years, before my curiosity dusted him off.  My literary transformation was engaged, and  I generously poured him another glass of bourbon, or cognac, or scotch, lit his cigarette, and watched the characters in his novel come to life and talk to me, as he, while sipping the clean amber spirits I would learn to consume and love a quarter century later, watched me fall deeper into the place he breathed life into.

“Joseph?” He called to me, leaning forward.

I looked at him. He paused.

“Why do you think I titled the book, ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain?'”

“Uh… I don’t know. I just started it.” I replied. I really hadn’t thought much of the title. The cover was what drew me to wanting to read it. I was a very visual nine.

“Son… think about the question. Why do you think I titled the book ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain?”

A tinge of intimidation stirred inside me. I wasn’t sure why the book was titled as it was. The song and the cover had nothing to do with one another, yet I needed to tell James something, lest he’d think I was stupid. His face became more intense; his eyes bulging with equal intensity to the vein on his forehead. I started thinking about my grandmother, and of the old women who patted me on my head. I thought about the smell of pig’s feet and fried chicken, and candies yams and the wet-sticky sound the potato salad made as it was mixed in a generational ceramic bowl. I could suddenly smell the yeast rolls and the sweet potato pies and vanilla cake. I was on the floor, at the feet of my elders, at the mercy of their spirits, at my grandmother’s house.

“Because,” I began. My words spilled slowly from trembling lips. ” he wanted to be heard.”

Baldwin straightened. “Umm hmm… yes … and….”

“And… uh… he was small and no one could see him.

A swoosh of energy took hold of my tongue, and I was John, instantly. I continued.

“And he needed to be heard, so he climbed on the steps, but it wasn’t high enough. Then he leaned from his second floor window, but it still wasn’t high enough. And he wanted them to hear him, to hear his heart, to know that he was alive. So he told them to follow him…”

“And who were they?” James quizzed.

“They were the people who loved him, and hated him, and feared him, and people he loved, feared, and hated. They were the people who kept him small, no matter how hard he tried to grow. He told them to follow him to the mountain, that he had something to tell. You had something to tell, didn’t you, James?”

I thought I saw a tear in James’ eye. I wasn’t sure if I was right or wrong, but he didn’t ask me any more questions about his books.

“It’s a long way,” John said slowly, “ain’t it? It’s a hard way. It’s uphill all the way.” (GTioTM — Baldwin)

jb chill

I finished Go Tell It On The Mountain within a week. It opened the doors for thousands of books that had long eluded me and my youthfulness. Go Tell validated my passions, fed my hunger and embraced my curiosities. Occasionally, James was not there, especially as I neared the end of a book, and his books continued to show up on the shelf. I wanted to talk to him about Go Tell…. I wanted to know where he got the story; was it about him or was it just a story. When I realized, after not seeing him for a few days, that he wasn’t coming back, my heart grew heavy. He had become my friend and his characters had become an extension of my family. Fortunately,  we would reconnect in a quiet corner in Atlanta many years later, several years before I  walked in his imagined footstep in Paris, trying  and hoping to summon the Baldwinian apparition I knew roamed there. He spoke with me as if we had never met. Maybe it was a highly creative imagination of a very inquisitive boy who saw him in the green fan-back chair. He was surrounded by several people firing questions at him, suffocating him. I could not, I would not, compete with them and I turned to leave, happy with the opportunity to, at the very least, shake the hand of my literary idol. He broke from the group and called my name, with the same familiar cadence as he had many years earlier.

I stopped. He was now standing in front of me with that wide familiar smile and those large froggy eyes. I was transported, briefly, back to my living room.

Joseph?

“Yes, Sir.”

He placed his hand on my should. I bent to hear his whisper.

“No one has ever given a better answer as to why I titled my novel “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” than you. No one.”

The moment was real. James Baldwin was truly, on that rainy summer day and many days to follow, sitting in the over-sized green fan-back chair in my living room.

Less than a year later, I became a Nomad, and he became a Legend. 

 

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