Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Price of the Ticket

"The Price of the Ticket," the very sound of the title has weight; it's metaphysical meaning is deep and resounding. Back in 1957, James Baldwin made the long journey back to the US and returned home from his self-imposed exile. He knew what he was doing. He knew that this was the price he had to pay. He knew that he could never be free to be the writer that he wanted to be while others struggled for their freedom. He was born to be a writer, an artist. He found a measure of freedom in France. He could be what he truly was there, and struggle with his art for art's sake. But true art can never just be for it's own sake. An artist has the highest of callings. James Baldwin understood that. It is the profession for those who would design the wings with which humanity can fly.

From an essay on the Guardian by Caryl Phillips:
"The price of the ticket" —

It is impossible to know what would have happened to Baldwin's writing career if he had not boarded that ship to New York in July 1957 and sailed towards fame. It may well be that, instead of producing more sensitively nuanced work in the tradition of his first two novels and Notes of a Native Son, his imagination might have stumbled in France (or in Turkey, or in Switzerland). Simply reading about developments back home in the US, as opposed to participating in them, would probably have driven Baldwin to distraction.

Despite the incredible risk to his personal and spiritual safety, he came back to his native land. America was lynching at least 1,000 black men per year (that we know of) by the 50's -- and Baldwin was an openly gay, black man. To be openly gay back then was unheard of for anyone, much less a black man, but onto the ship he went leaving peace and safety behind.

Why did he do this? Nina Simone never came back. Josephine Baker came back and left again. So why did James Baldwin come back? The answer is simple: he came back for us -- his children -- his legacy. He saw in us a hope. The artists, the activists, the writers, the dreamers, white, black, Chinese, Jew, and Gentile, everyone on the front lines of freedom. He saw in us something worth fighting for, something worth believing in. He sacrificed his spiritual calling, his writing, to the cause of freedom. He could have easily stayed in France and wrote novels about romantic love and other such things, but to do that would mean closing his eyes to the fight that was brewing here -- and that would have cost him is soul.

I remembered that I had challenged him one snowy night in Amherst, Massachusetts, and asked him why he was wasting his time in "this dump of a town" instead of buckling down and producing another Jimmy Baldwin novel. The folly and stupidity of youth. He heard me out, then smiled gracefully and said, "One day you'll understand, baby."

So many have given of themselves to the cause of this country -- so many, great and small. This is the "price of the ticket." It's the price that Dr. King paid, it's the price that Malcolm X paid, it's the price that Cindy Sheehan's son paid and that she is paying right now, it's the price that anyone who truly believes in freedom must pay. The price of giving unselfishly of one's self to the cause of freedom and the promise of this land. It is worth fighting for, or at least, Jimmy thought so.


Melissa said...

This entry fascinated me, and made me think. I had no idea Baldwin was gay - and wow, openly gay in that era - the amount of personal strength he must have had...

I'm adding you to my blogroll. I hope you don't mind?

jenn said...

Thank you for adding me to your blog roll!

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