Arts & Culture / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 2

“Like Rain, Like Thunder, Like Lightning, Like Fire”

Diedra Harris Kelley Artist in Her Studio

Image Credit: Diedra Harris-Kelley, Artist in Her Studio,
1992, oil on canvas, 54” x 64”. Courtesy of the artist.

By the time James Baldwin took the stage at the University of Chicago in May 1963 to speak on the subject of “The Moral (or Social) Responsibility of the Artist,” an impatient authority was immediately discernible. This recently unearthed recording of the novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet, reveals a weary and assertive Baldwin, curt in voice as he quibbles with the title and queries the audience if they can hear him, adding clearly and sharply that if they can’t, “you’ve got to let me know.” This injunction for studied attention and clear communication characterizes the single-minded commitment of this address about the role of the artist in the near manic context of the racial emergency then engulfing the country. Well into a lecture tour for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Baldwin had only recently published on the subject of the vital connection between art and society with the appearance of “The Creative Process,” in the collection Creative America in 1962. At the beginning of the year, “As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” was published in The New York Review of Books, an essay concerning the necessary labor of the American novelist to shun innocence and “tell as much truth as one can bear, and then a little more” (29). At the end of November 1962, Baldwin would also deliver an address at the Community Church in New York on the “Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” which finds its first circulation in print in March 1963 in the Liberator, and later that year in Freedomways.1

Early in May 1963, and just five days before he was to grace the cover of Time with a steady and more than quietly scolding glare, Baldwin had wired then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy declaring his outrage concerning the sustained police assault on peaceful civil rights protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, led by the outspoken white supremacist Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, in the period between May 2 and May 10. In the wire, Baldwin lays the blame squarely on President John F. Kennedy as a consequence of his failure to act decisively about a clear moral issue, especially given Connor’s brutal history with the Freedom Riders in 1961, and his explicitly articulated platform of racial terror when he sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1962.

With all this as bracing context, Baldwin’s focused, precise, and intense disposition throughout this rather extraordinary address (for its instrumentalist charge, conceptual ambition, and moral certainty) is exactly appropriate. The stakes were high, people were dying, and he was widely popular. As he mentions throughout his remarks, he was speaking as an American artist that day, and was thus necessarily charged with disturbing an already troubled peace. That Baldwin centers artists as the principal actors in this major domestic drama in his public statements adds necessary dimensionality to the often flat biographical narrative of the author as a reluctant spokesperson for black America—a move blamed for tarnishing his own artistry.

This “final” speech in the stunning flurry of rhetorical and rapidly transcribed written interventions on the unique role of the artist over the course of a significant year and a half in our nation’s racial career is revelatory for its consistency and deep regard for the activity of human living. In “The Creative Process” and “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” as well as this lecture, Baldwin reaffirms his position that “traditionally and classically the artist is always possessed.” The “religious” and deeply secular rapture by which the artist is overtaken is, as he says here, “precisely the vision of the New Jerusalem, the vision of heaven on earth.” This pleading of the blood, as he might term it, this existential, dreamy compunction to “question everything” and confront reality when a society refuses to deal with the history it has produced is the singular preserve of artists. For Baldwin, “it is only the artist, as distinguished from the priest, the psychoanalyst, [and] the pope, who has really given us any real sense of what it is like to be alive.” Echoed in this orienting recording is his sentiment expressed in the two earlier essays that, “[t]he poets, (by which I mean all artists) are the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Union leaders don’t. Priest don’t. Only Poets” (“Artist Struggle for Integrity” 42). In all of these addresses, Baldwin insists that it is the artist who reminds us, as we make our way on this mysterious journey, that one does well to heed the edict of Henry James, a great literary influence, to “Live, live, all you can. It’s a mistake not to” (“Artist Struggle for Integrity” 42). This metaphysical preoccupation is not easily or usefully dismissed as the grandiose musings of the “poet, the lunatic, or the lover,” as he cautions here. The urgent character of the artist’s role is made vivid precisely because of what she has witnessed of the horrific and often murderous nature of human beings.

When Baldwin tells the crowd gathered in New York only a few months before this appearance that “[t]he time has come, it seems to me, to recognize that the framework in which we operate weighs on us too heavily to be borne and is about to kill us. It is time to ask very hard questions and to take very rude positions,” he was not exaggerating (“Artist Struggle for Integrity” 47). For the bloody and shameful record of marquis assassinations remains: from Medgar Evers who would be killed a month later, and JFK in November 1963; to Martin, Malcolm, and RFK-who would close out the decade. One by one, the “principal” players of an always-incipient civil rights progress were being cut down. To say nothing of those four young girls silenced while praying in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963. And all this alongside the state-sponsored covert campaigns against the very movement itself.

The “frightening assignment” for black artists then, as Baldwin tells it, is that “one is dealing all the time with the most inarticulate people that I, in any case, have ever encountered…inarticulate and illiterate…and totally unlettered in the language of the heart, totally distrustful of whatever cannot be touched, [and] panic-stricken at the first sign of pain” (“Artist Struggle for Integrity” 47). At mid-century, Baldwin asks his audience to consider the proposition that black people (and black artists) live, necessarily, on a different level of experience, and have more in common with Homer and Europeans because they understand the pain and life-shaping grace of tragedy. In doing so, he is attempting to bridge the gap between the indulgence of historical myths and a desperate reality. As he maintains, it is a history Americans have attempted to escape with a “dangerously adolescent” refusal to confront the fact of a changing country.

He concludes by surmising that “the great hangover here is the doctrine of white supremacy, [for if] we can’t manage to accept what we have done, and what are doing, we are going to destroy our children.” And as if speaking of our renewed, contemporary crisis, Baldwin goes on to warn that, “a country which pretends that it is possible to get to be seventy and still be innocent is in great danger. And we elected a boy of seventy not once, but twice.” And here we are again. The speech ends with his paraphrasing of a line from Nietzsche about a time when the philosopher was standing before “his highest mountain and longest journey,” and declared that he “therefore must descend deeper than I have ever before descended.” As Baldwin observed then, “this is where we are.”

In this great American author’s expansive imagination, the artist-poet is produced to guide us since “we must descend into a sea of human experience [and] try to bump up into the great light of human responsibility,” if we are ever truly to triumph. The artist, necessarily religious and possessed, is engaged in one fundamental effort: To have us recognize and respect the fact, amidst all the chaos, and in the presence of the everyday miracle of the birth of the child, “that there is nothing under heaven–no creed, and no flag, and no cause, more important, than a single human life.” It is the growing embrace of this elemental and demanding fact of human existence (“like rain, like thunder, like lightning, like fire”), which might ultimately save us from becoming a more wretched civilization.

Work Cited:
Kenan, Randall, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings of James Baldwin. New York: Vintage/Penguin Random House, 2011.

1Baldwin broached the topic in much shorter form in the essay, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist.” That same year, Baldwin would also publish “A Word from Writer Directly to a Reader, a short note to accompany a story of his in Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing. See Randall Kenan,ed., The Cross of Redemption: James Baldwin Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010)

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