- 17, or, Tough, Dark, Vulnerable, Moody
By the time I was 17, you’d done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is, how are you going to save yourselves?—James Baldwin, May 1963
In the wake of his death, which had come a few weeks earlier in December 1987, the editor-become-writer Toni Morrison eulogized James Baldwin. Published just before Christmas in the book section of the New York Times, Morrison’s essay is a work of introspection and humility. Rather than offer an encapsulation of Baldwin’s life, as a writer or as otherwise, Morrison opens in abnegation to her task. “Jimmy,” she writes, “there is too much to think about you, and too much to feel” (2008, 90). The sheer improbability of his emergence into the life that became his, what Morrison calls “the difficulty” of such a life, is nothing short of a miracle itself and thus “refuses [End Page 65] summation…and invites contemplation instead.” To think about Baldwin in his eclipse is to think about him in his totality, and out of that contemplation Morrison generates her essay’s structuring epiphany: “Like many of us left here I thought I knew you. Now I discover that in your company it is myself I know.” From this fundamental insight Morrison’s essay blossoms into an exploration of how she understands Baldwin’s life and work as a gift to hers. Hers is a story of being brought into being through what she characterizes as the three gifts given by Baldwin: language, courage, and vulnerability—his decolonizing language by replacing “lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance”; his “courage that came from a ruthless intelligence married to a pity so profound,” and his “vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver” (Morrison 2008, 93).
It is this last gift, the ways and means to deliver, that I would like to take some time to explore, for what is most striking in Morrison’s essay is the vividness of her willingness to address Baldwin as a parent. Not parent like “forefather,” nor in the ways literary critics talk about inheritance, but just very literally as a caregiver, thus highlighting the motivational and expressive power of care in Baldwin’s oeuvre, the revolutionary possibilities of black American life embedded in loving children who are already in the world, no matter how they have arrived, where they have been, and who they might choose to become. From her early confession that “I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me, were nevertheless unmistakable, even if unenforced,” to her essay’s closing insistence that “I suppose that is why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished,” Morrison’s orientation to Baldwin shifts comfortably across a spectrum of caregiving relationships (Morrison 2008, 90; 93). Baldwin is parent and uncle, admired older sibling and doting grandparent and, ultimately, midwife to the black world’s many survivals. In Baldwin’s conceptualization, futures are not born; they are built in contrapuntal movements between the demands of filiation and the possibilities of affiliation, in the care of children who are not one’s own. As Morrison identifies in her goodbye, Baldwin, tender, is a midwife to revolution. [End Page 66]
Across his oeuvre Baldwin is careful to articulate that his focus on children and childrearing has simply been another part of his own becoming, even as, without nostalgia, he observes that his “childhood is the usual bleak fantasy,” and goes on to note that “we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again” (Baldwin 1998, 5). Indeed, once understood as central to Baldwin’s moral, ethical, and political cosmology, it is almost shocking how many children emerge in Baldwin’s writing. In one essay children are off in the distance, patrolling the same Harlem dump where Baldwin grew up playing. In the story “Sonny’s Blues,” they curl up on the...