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Ben Sen

Ben Sen
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New York, N.Y.,
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December 31
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I'd rather be judged on the basis of my posts than anything written in my bio. It's put down and gathered as a record of my experience and a response to what I see as the important issues in the world today. I don't pretend it's anything other than subjective. The purpose is to analyze, interpret, express opinions, challenge the status quo, open a few doors, and entertain. I heartily welcome ratings, comments and dialogue. That's what makes this media unique and valuable. It also keeps me honest and encouraged since I'm not getting paid. Take a risk and say something; it feels better. A "conversation" is essential for the growth of the individual and the collective. I have faith it extends beyond the confines of what is said here. "For it is necessary for awake people to be awake, or a breaking line may discourge us back to sleep, the signals we give--yes, no or maybe--should be clear: the darkness around us is deep." From A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER by William Stafford

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Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 2, 2012 2:02PM

The James Baldwin Revival

Rate: 33 Flag

     I'll never forget reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time at my parents' kitchen table in the suburbs of Detroit while the old city burned.  Tanks patrolled the streets where we once lived and the A&P where I worked as a teenager was destroyed.

     Baldwin's prophecy came through sooner than expected.  All the anger captured in his words expressed the beginning of the end of the city my family had known for three generations, once the fifth largest city in the country.  Few major cities were spared, but Detroit's the one that never came back.  He didn't advocate it, he simply said it was bound to happen.

     I just finished reading The Cross Of Redemption, his uncollected works, published in 2010.  It's all there.  What I most remember, then and now, was Baldwin's insistence that slavery meant not only the denigration of the black man but the white man as well.   He charged that's true wherever racial or ethnic oppression is found, and especially when it's denied and allowed to undermine any claim to humanity a culture may have, or wish it had.

     The black people in this country stand in a very strange place, as do the white people in this country--for almost the very same reason, though we approach it from different points of view.  I suggest that what the rulers of this country don't know about the world which surrounds them is the price they pay for not knowing me.  If they couldn't deal with my father, how are they going to deal with the people in the streets of Tehran? I could have told them, if they had asked.  (1979)

James Baldwin
 

     A lot of folks don't know who Baldwin is any more, so here's his story:    "A failed relationship left his mother with a child," according to Randall Kenan, who edited the book, so he was probably born out of wedlock in 1924. His mother moved to Harlem and married a preacher so James became the oldest of a progeny of eight. 

     At 14--fourteen--he bacame a preacher himself and never really stopped.  He was on the cusp of survival, homosexual,  and when his strict step-father died when he was 18, worked to support the family.  The only indication he'd become one of the greatest writers of his generation--black or white was a figment only of his own imagination.

     His views on the role of the artist are just as inspiring as those on race and deeply intertwined: 

     It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write.  And I would never come before you in the position of a complaintant for doing something I must do.  What we...must get at is what the importance of this effort is.  However arrogant this may sound, what I want to suggest is that poets (by this I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.  Soldiers don't.  Statesman don't.  Priests don't.  Union leaders don't.  Only poets. (1963)

    Today, one wonders if he could have gotten half as far as he did, not because he was black, but because not only did he not have a degree from one of the colleges that matter, but any college at all.  That's another reminder of the changes that HAVE happened.  They accepted him for what he said alone and the listeners he created.  I don't think that's happenin' much no mo', despite the internet--few new voices are gettin' through.

     He received his break when he was a messenger and met  the Jewish editor of the Nation who let him review The Best Short Stories of Maxim Gorky in 1947.  That review is contained in this book.  His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, an extravagantly precocious work introduced the world to "black Christianity" in 1953, Giovanni's Room (1956) to its homosexuality at a time that was far more forbidden than today, and Another Country (1962) his masterpiece and bestseller to it all.  His fiction is awash in penetrating psychological insight and language that tie his characters inseparably to the culture from which they spring.

     He wrote some of the finest essays we have of the American experience, threading a thin line between fury and acceptance of his role as a black man.  When the cities started to burn, Baldwin was at his peak and joined in the national debate with gusto.  He knew everybody, went everywhere, and had something definitive to say about it all.

     I went to hear him speak at the beginning of the 70's at the Fillmore East in between sets by the Butterfield Blues Band, or was it Frank Zappa?  I was shocked by how diminutive and uncomfortable he seemed--as if caught in his body trying find a way out with all his strength. 

     It was during the time he was ostracized by the radical wing of the black movement, which stressed him mightily, but he refused to join the side advocating violence--walking an even finer tightrope before all those prying, indecipherable white man's eyes.  He stood up to every one of them.

        The essay that left me in tears recounts the "summit" he organized with black leaders and Robert Kennedy--so telling of the time.  He invited Kenneth Clark, the academic, a few leaders from moderate black political organizations, Harry Belafonte, his good friend, Rip Torn, the actor, Lena Horne, and Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright, who will forever be known for her participation.

      It reminded me of a bunch of students meeting with the all powerful Dean.  They wanted Robert, then Attorney General, to convince his brother, the President, to accompany a black child up the steps of a schoolhouse in the South.  "That way it will be clear, whoever spits on the child spits on the nation," said Hansberry. 

     Kennedy called it a "meaningless moral gesture"  and then was shocked when the group said it was totally defensible for blacks to deny taking up arms to defend the country.  The plantation in those days was run by the grandsons of potato farmers who went to Harvard and history would consider them the good guys.

     Baldwin never descended to the depths of racism given all that was ahead, and there was a lot ahead, and wrote over another dozen books, most of them heads and tails above the common fare.  Kennedy said in thirty years there'd be a black president.  Baldwin didn't question it but wondered "what kind of a president he would be."

      There's no doubt in my mind he'd see the racism deeply insinuated in the Obama Presidency,  particularly his strategy of appeasement with totally intractable enemies, and his chastisement as the "food stamp president" serving as the code to bring the good old boys out of the closet. What price "freedom?"  What price freedom, indeed.

      One strongly doubts, if Obama is not re-elected, if the matter will be re-visited--the collective shame is still that strong and pervades all else.  It isn't an issue I've heard discussed and suspect if it comes up at all in the general election it will be resolutely dismissed as "the race card." 

     That's what's happened so far.  The denial  is no less palpable today than in Robert Kennedy's time.  It's not blacks who are calling Obama an Uncle Tom, they know better, it's the naive faux liberals who helped elect him who don't understand his vulnerability.

     I had a chance once to shake Baldwin's hand while he sat in a cafe in Paris.  It was an opportunity that startled me when our eyes met, I did not take it,  and will regret it until my final day.*

 

*Baldwin was recently the only black writer examined in An American Oracle: The Civil War and Civil Rights Movement by David W. Bright (Berkeley/Harvard University Press) along with Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, and Edmund Wilson.  The sesquicentennial of the civil war will last until 2015.

Technical assistance:  Mercedes Arnao

photo credit: goodfello.com

 

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Comments

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Have you offered this essay elsewhere for publication? It's excellent and timely. Those were more hopeful times, it seems. Now we are forced to face the fact that the ugliness we thought was gone, or at least going still abounds. Just read that some self-righteous group of 'mothers' wants JCP to reject Ellen as a spokesperson because she doesn't project their values. And a governor presumes to shake her finger in the face of our president, but that same group of 'mother's remains quiet on that front. !ing hypocrites.
Wonderful! Thanks for writing this!
Diane
Thanks Beauty:

Right now this is exclusive to OS. I send my posts to publications with little success. How they know I have bad breath over the internet I'll never know. I'd upload it to other sites, but aren't really sure how. I push the keys....
What an enlightened individual Baldwin was, to see that slavery harmed both blacks and whites. What a wonderful piece of writing, Ben! Rated highly. Congratulations on the EP!
I may not share the depth of your study but I followed and appreciated the points contained in your essay. I'm disgusted by today's "dog-whistle" efforts. Yes, you can get an "amen."
Wonderfully and powerfully written, Ben. I especially liked your line at the end: "the collective shame is still that strong and pervades all else." That is how I have always thought about the raw, primative politics you find in places like the Deep South, where I lived for more than a decade, in Montgomery, Alabama. The scar tissue on the soul you find there is not confined to the South, of course, but is particularly prevelent there because that is where there remains the "collective shame" and memory of a history and a tradition that treated other human beings as things.
He definitely lived in a different time, back then Black writers often had White patrons I don't think anything like that exists today. And people were also more open to an honest discussion on race than they are today. Which of the major networks do you see today even entertaining the idea of speaking with a Malcolm or Huey? The only one I see is Free Speech TV and that about covers it. I'm saying that to say you will never know the quality of Black writer who is in the world today if they are writing social commentary because there is no venue for them/us to be heard. I don't even think Baldwin would have a platform unless he learned how not to say White ever. He would need to be well versed in color codes like "middle class blue collar worker" but he couldn't be specific in the way he was in his writing. I think if he looked uncomfortable at Fillmore East, he would look like maggots were crawling all over him in most venues today. I'm glad he lived when he did and wrote when he did, because I don't think he would even have been discovered today. Loved your piece and now I'm going to rediscover him myself.
Great post. I read Cross of Redemption and was reminded how spot on Baldwin was about things then, and now.
Thank you so much for this thoughtful article. Baldwin has been my hero since I opened his first book. He was courageous as well as compassionate. His voice is as relevant and fresh today as ever.
Read Baldwin contemporaneously, which was heavy-duty.

What struck me in your essay is the request ("meaningless" indeed!) of having the president hold a black child's hand into a southern school - whoa! That would have made a big impression at the time and would probably be the enduring image of Kennedy (as opposed to that of having his head blown off or being serenaded by Marilyn Monroe). Owell. And now we do indeed have our first black president.

Oh wait a minute. YOU have your first black president. We-all outside the U.S. applauded. And have been watching the dog-fight ever since.
Excellent piece, Ben. I read Baldwin in the early '60s. Another Country, Giovanni's Room and The Fire Next Time, as well as Norman Mailer's essays about him, including The White Negro. I had just gotten out of the Army where, coming from a lily white Midwest community, I lived with blacks for the first time in my life. Army buddies in Germany introduced me to Detroit street talk and "the walk" and persuaded me to try chitterlings, which I would never have done otherwise. They weren't as bad as I'd feared. I didn't keep up with Baldwin after those several years, and probly the only piece of his I read since was a defense of his good friend William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. For the past three decades I've lived within a couple hours of Virginia's Southhampton County, where Turner's rebellion took place, and have studied with fascination and sorrow that bit of Southern history.

You've inspired me to return to Mr. Baldwin. It seems I have considerable catching up to do. Thank you much.
Seeing Myriad's comment reminded me of your mention of Robert Kennedy vetoing the suggestion that his brother walk up the steps of a school hand in hand with a black child. I had not known that and am disappointed in Bobby, who somewhat redeemed himself later in his own bid for the presidency. I wonder if he bounced the idea off JFK and got the veto from him, which would not be as surprising as if Bobby's decision alone. Either way the Kennedy name is further tarnished for me.
Great choice to revisit. I will read and remember. Thanks for expanding my thinking.
Appreciated and rated. Thank you. ♥
Thanks for reminding us of James Baldwin. I heard Baldwin speak at my high school in the early 1960s. He was self-effacing but a dramatic orator. I would say he was enthusiastically received. His perspectives were so many-faceted. They couldn't be reduced to any simple formula or easily categorized. His insights were hard to sum up, which I think irritated some people during the 60s. It is interesting how his legacy has risen, fallen, and now perhaps is rising again.

But what kind of book about the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement cites only one black writer? What explains that? [R]
I have been in love with Baldwin since high school when I was an honors English student and my teacher told me to read Another Country. I devoured it and went on to read his other novels and brilliant essays, and probably re-read AC half a dozen times over the years. I have always thought him one of our finest post-war novelists and it's sad to see his reputation in eclipse, but then that happens periodically with great writers. He needs champions.
James Baldwin was a brilliant and prescient man who is sadly under appreciated in life and letters. Thanks for bringing him back into our consciousness.
I loved his intense emotionalism which matches my own personality
I was fortunate to attend James Baldwin's enshrinement into the American Poets' Corner this past fall.

http://open.salon.com/blog/markbutkus/2011/11/07/iconoclast_james_baldwin_inducted_to_american_poets_corner
Wonderful article.

I first read Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" years ago, probably at about 21 yrs old. Picked it up at a used bookstore, had heard that the author was famous and gay but that's all I knew. LOVED the book and scrambled to get more of his works. Finally got one with the author's picture; had no idea he was black. Having grown up in the south and worked to erase the racism I'd learned from childhood (mostly in church), the realization was amazing and made his work even more compelling.

Thank you for remembering him. I'll have to go back to a used bookstore and do some catching up with James.
Thanks for this, Ben Sen. James Baldwin was one of novelists of my day who inspired me to write. He was a visionary, one I wish more would have heeded.

Lezlie
Ben Sen, I agree with beauty. This is an excellent and compelling piece and quite worth of publication. Your point, Baldwin's point about "collective shame" reflects the natural way of things. We cannot escape these kinds of truths. What an honor to hear him speak and I understand your regret, but your knowledge and admiration of him I hope makes this up for you. Thank you for writing this and sharing.
To clarify my earlier comment: the chitterlings weren't as bad as I'd feared. ;-D
Baldwin and Zappa? How I'd love a time machine to go back to catch that double bill! This is an excellent post; it pulls up memories and enlightens at the same time. I especially appreciate the anecdote about Kennedy's refusal to accompany a black child into a school building. I'm not sure I understand how a "moral gesture" can be "meaningless. In light of that opinion, Kennedy's surprise about the group's comment on not fighting for the country is not as stunning as it first seemed, as I suppose he felt that acting on their morally defensible position would also be a "meaningless ... gesture." Moving "The Cross of Redemption" to the top of my reading list.

And Hansberry! I love the syntactical callback to Jesus in her statement (what you do the least of these my brethren, you do to me).

I'm sorry you have that regret. I have no doubt he got a message from your eyes.
This is an excellent essay. I admit to not having read anything by James Baldwin. My wife read his work when she went back to college in the '80s (I went to college before his first book) and so I got the Clif Notes version of his books through her.
I wonder what he would be writing now that Obama is in the white house. I agree that, in an effort to avoid the appearance of playing the race card, the president has not fully flexed the muscle that lies in the office of President. I sincerely hope that he is re-elected so that we can see him work when not up for re-election. R
I'm sorry it took me so long to get here to read this.
I really appreciated the content and writing-quality of this piece. I have long been a Baldwin devotee, so I was immediately attracted to the title. It took me awhile to get to it, but only because I am busy.
Thanks so VERY much for your outstanding arcticle....just happened to come upon it after having had an absolutely thrilling opportunity to partake of Session this morning @ The Actors Studio in NYC, where I'm a Member. Calvin Levels the Actor/Playwright was working on his piece about James Baldwin, and was investigating it more, given that is what the nature of what is done @ the Studio entails...it was fantastic work and Calvin was electric, which made me want to investigate Mr. Baldwin further... thanks so very much and Best 2U!...off on my trek to discover more about this intriguing individual!...
Ben, this is by far one of the best articles I've read on OS. As one who feels James Baldwin should be required reading, you have managed to capture his brilliance and insight magnificently.

Gotta go pull my Baldwin off the shelf again.
Your comment about not shaking his hand (I'm sorry!) reminds me of a thought I sometimes have: I keep pictures on my computer of people whose minds excite and move me and I'll just flip through them sometimes to feel better about things. He's one of them, of course, and the sad side of it is that so many of them are dead. When I think of the "salon" I'd like to put together, of people whose minds are alive and whose ideas and inspiration shake me down, I'd have to resurrect most of them (but not all of them!). Who do we have today who would cause us to lose our breath if we ran into them on the street? Is it that they don't exist, or that they don't get attention? I hope it's the latter.
This is quite excellent, Ben. I'll say, in moments when the discussion arises, I wait for some person other than a black person to understand the particularities of being black in America. Growing up in intergrated suburbia, I have tended to find that perspective readily available. It has come as a great surprise, especially since my mid 30's or so, to realize that this understanding is so very lacking, and far beneath my expectation.

This essay is candid and genuine. It rings of authenticity. And as circular as this acolade must sound, it is not about the agreement that I find appealing. It is about the understanding of the human experience that I find appealing. There is something about the white apartheid in America, such that it is, that is alienating. It is not apartheid like South Africa once was, nor is it like the American South once was, but it is a turning away of our joint status of being human that is quite real here and now. There is an alienating aspect of it. Many deny that it exists, and pander to those who proffer hatred quite blatantly. They naively believe that this which goes on is a form of bad manners. For all of the religiosity that exists in our culture today, a great deal of spirituality is lacking that would counteract the misanthopy that has never left.

Through this post it is quite clear that you get it.
Bill mentioned this post to me in a PM so I thought I'd come by and have a look. Glad he did. This is excellent writing.
During the Great Migration blacks were recorded to have been attacked by gangs of white HUNDREDS OF TIMES as they attempted to rent, or, heaven forbid, purchase, housing. The whole evil racist story: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/johnson/gcApril28questions.htm

Another sad entry in herstory was when, in opposition to Japanese auto imports, a Chinese individual, one of my distant brethren, was attacked as some sort of KKK type protest.
Arthur, to comment to you without delivering an insult is difficult because of the absurd quality of your analyses, and the repugnant nature of your character, but for this point it requires the comparison.

You wrote an essay about why you stopped being a liberal. Your own testimony was that it involved a love of target shooting, and Al Gore being a guy after your guns, and then something else about already being taxed enough. Those are your words about why you switched from being a liberal...to whatever you have arrived at. That is such a trivial, shallow, silly couple of reasons to switch from being liberal to whatever you are now, that it makes one wonder. Why were you a liberal to begin with? Did you understand it? What is the depth of your character? Fortunately, there are quite a few essays of yours by which one may make that determination. So, you wonder about Ben Sen writing about the Chinese? Arthur, as evidenced by your own testimony, I don't think you have the capacity to understand it.
Ben Sen deleted a comment from me, in which I asked him to write a blog post about the Chinese, whom he attacked on another post. What a sensitive, understanding fellow. I imagine he will delete this too, but perhaps someone will have the chance to
read it, in case he is constipated and away from his computer for a while.
Now, suddenly, we have heard from three fourths of Bill Beck's traveling carnival, commenting on this ancient post. Where is onislandtime? No collaboration involved at all. They all just suddenly started reading old posts at the same time, commenting within minutes of each others, and sharing the same opinions.
Arthur, why don't you read this excellent post and discuss the post.
Arthur, comments place the post title in the stream on the left of your home page. Oahu noticed it there. As Kosher mentioned, I PM'd him and suggested that he read it. That was because the post is excellent. That had nothing to do with you...if you can wrap your head around that.
Interesting story about Bobby Kennedy. He was also the A.G. who wiretapped Martin Luther King.

r
Need to read more. I am inspired to read some vintage Baldwin. Again or for the first time. Thank you. Well done.
I had to hit the rate button to be sure I had rated this before. I( had, so consider it re-rated.) I remember when you posted it. It brought back memories of reading Baldwin years ago and knowing nothing of his life, only loving the writing. I'm glad to see this back in the feed, as it deserve wide readership.
Thank you new commenters:

I write my work not be based on headlines and the latest controversies, but on the broader context.

Maybe somebody will revive my post about Montaigne. Odd. You never know what's going to hit, or when. Both received EP's back in the day when there was an editor who liked my work, and both have received ofver 5,000 readers, which I think is nothing less than miraculous given that they are reviews of books written years ago, about writers who've mostly been forgotten.

I think it says a lot about those who have stuck with OS. The crazies haven't taken over entirely, but they sure as hell keep tryin'.
Ben Sen, that idea was in the back of my head as I was reading this. "The crazies have not taken over entirely." One beautiful thing is it was one of the crazies that prompted this exploration. The contrast is stark. This post is wonderful and your antagonist is a goon.
Bill:

I got it. The irony of it's extravagant. He attacks me as racist and that leads to the revival of a post I wrote a long time ago that goes to the top of the feed and comments that add to the conversation, rather than feeds into his bitter vindictiveness. Honestly, I don't know how I could be more pleased.
Rated, belatedly. Fantastic essay from back in the days when there were editors at OS.

If I may Ben Sen .. Arthur, you make yourself look fucking stupid, more so each passing day. You should truly consider shutting the fuck up, and then learn to write as well as the author of this piece.
I love your use of Fair and Balanced. That's exactly how it's used nowadays. You know your Foxisms.
Mr. Louis aka The Geezer:

Take the hint. You're no longer welcomed on my blog. My understanding is that you've already been reported to the management and I think they might be paying attention since your blog no longer shows up on the feed.

You can go away mad, angry and more embittered than you are already, but go away. I've said it to you before, but your age is a matter of your temperament, not your body and it's the temperament of an old, envious and immature person full of recrimination, and your opinions reflect that.

I think that's clear to most level headed readers not themselves equally embittered.
Fear, and Un-Balanced!