REVIEW: Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

For many, James Baldwin is associated with novels, fiction. But my greatest affinity for Baldwin lies with his nonfiction and his role as a public intellectual.

In the volume I co-edited, James Baldwin: Challenging Authors, chapter authors examine Baldwin as a powerful voice across genre and form. Concurrent with that volume is the publication of Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Baldwin is rarely examined as a poet so this collection is significant for those new to Baldwin as well as those who have studied and treasure his complete canon.

The slim book of poetry is inviting as a paperback—the cover an electric blue to complement the rich use of “blues” in the title—color, music, mood:

Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin

“Playing by Ear, Praying for Rain: The Poetry of James Baldwin,” the introduction by Nikky Finney, opens the collection passionately and parallels Baldwin’s own challenging persona: “Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide,” Finney warns (p. ix).

Finney introduces readers to Baldwin as well as his poetry—his sexuality and frankness central to both:

Uninviting Baldwin was often the excuse for the whitewashing of his urgent and necessary 
brilliance from both the conservative black community and from whites who had never heard such a dark genius display such rich and sensory antagonism for them. Into the microphone of the world Baldwin leaned — never afraid to say it. (p. x)

Finney emphasizes that Baldwin always remained true to himself: “They could listen in or they could ignore him, but he was never their boy, writing something they wanted to hear” (p. xiii). Baldwin always sought Truth, compelled to speak the Truth:

In his work he remained devoted to exposing more and more the ravages of poverty and invisibility on black and poor people….

Baldwin was never afraid to say it in his novels, in his essays, and in his poetry — because Baldwin saw us long before we saw ourselves. (pp. xix, xxi)

For me, as someone drawn to Baldwin’s nonfiction and videos of his speaking, these poems fits into those contexts in ways that give his poetry a vibrancy beyond the grave.

Baldwin’s poetry is Baldwin’s voice.

“Staggerlee wonders”

A 16-page poem in four sections, this opening piece sparks, for me, Baldwin’s “Who Is the Nigger?” from Take This Hammer:

Simultaneously, “Staggerlee wonders” is deeply steeped in the U.S. of Baldwin’s lifetime and disturbingly relevant to 2014. The speaker mentions Russia, China, the Panama Canal, and Vietnam along with “Mad Charlie,” Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Mohammad Ali. But the historical, political, and pop culture references do not date the poem since Baldwin uses them as vehicles for his truth-telling.

The poem rarely strays too far from colors, or more accurately skin pigmentation. And Baldwin deftly blends slurs and dialects in the voice of the speaker who appears both of the situation as well as above the situation: the racial and social inequities of being Black in the U.S.:

I wonder how they think
the niggers made, make it,
how come the niggers are still here.
But, then, again, I don’t think they dare
to think of that: no:
I’m fairly certain they don’t think of that at all. (3.1-6)

As an opening poem, “Staggerlee wonders” represents Baldwin’s complexity and richness, as well as his tensions—notably his use of Biblical references bracketed with “though theology has absolutely nothing to do/ with what I am trying to say” and “But we are not talking about belief.”

This poem reveals Baldwin’s craft, his ability to be deeply personal and bound by his moments of history while speaking against and to the great questions of being human when humans fail their humanity.

David L. Ulin poses James Baldwin, poet? But of course. in his review of this new collection from Baldwin, concluding,

This new version of “Jimmy’s Blues” features six poems that until now have only been available in a limited edition chapbook published after Baldwin’s death. Not all of this material is equally resonant, but when he’s on, Baldwin has the rare ability to contain contradictions — and not only to contain them, but also to evoke them on the page.

As National Poetry Month 2014 comes to a close and as we move toward Baldwin’s 90th birthday in August, now appears to be right for exploring Baldwin the poet.

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

I have offered two posts confronting a pattern in the U.S. of denying racism (usually arguing class instead) despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary:

As a third post, I invite you to read and view James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates*:

* If you are an educator, I recommend this as a unit for students.

Beyond “Doubly Disadvantaged”: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Schools and Society

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) established the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) for Fair Housing program in the mid-1990:

MTO recruited more than 4,600 families with children living in severely distressed public housing projects in five cities (Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City). HUD offered some MTO families the opportunity to use a housing voucher to move into private-market housing in lower poverty neighborhoods and did not make the same offer to others.

“The Long-Term Effects of Moving to Opportunity on Youth Outcomes” (2012) reveals the following from that program:

These patterns [school dropout, low test scores, and delinquency] have led to a longstanding concern that neighborhood environments may exert an independent causal effect on the life chances of young people. Because low-income individuals comprise nearly one-half of the 8.7 million people living in census tracts with poverty levels of 40 percent or higher (Kneebone, Nadeau, and Berube, 2011), poor children growing up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty may be “doubly disadvantaged”—they face potential risks from growing up in a low-income household and in an economically poor neighborhood. (See a full discussion HERE)

The disadvantages of being born poor and then attending public schools in impoverished neighborhoods are far greater than doubled, however. The disadvantages are exponential and involve race, class, and gender.

NPR has presented two brief looks at new analyses from MTO—one directly about Study: Boys Report PTSD When Moved Out Of Poverty, and the other a related story, ‘Prep School Negro’ Shows Struggle Between Poverty And Plenty.

David Green reports on the MTO research:

Now a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that boys from these families did not thrive. They found that the move took a toll on their emotional well being, a toll not experienced by girls….

Professor at Harvard Medical School, Ronald Kessler explains about the research findings:

Well, the hope was originally that the educational opportunities for the kids would increase because of better schools, that the opportunities for the parents finding jobs would increase because they moved to places where there were higher employment rates so that in the long run the kids, as they moved out, would have better socioeconomic achievement than they would have otherwise….

Well, we found something that we hadn’t expected, which was the effect of the intervention was quite positive for girls, but boys had the opposite effect. Boys were more depressed. They were more likely to have post traumatic stress disorder. They were more likely to have conduct problems if they were in families that were offered vouchers than in the control group that wasn’t involved in any kind of move.

Although not part of the WTO experimental group, Andre Robert Lee represents that alienation felt by African American and poor males and identified by Kessler and his team:

I kind of feel like when you’re black, sometimes you have to be twice as good. I was kind of, you know, sad by it, you know. I’m a people person and to go to a school where you can’t be yourself – I was being myself, but people not to embrace you is just – it kind of sucked.

This research and personal experience must be placed in several social and educational contexts.

First, the unique and negative experiences of impoverished males, including impoverished African American males, are complicated by the research on how people view African American children:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, aimed at figuring out the extent to which black children were likely to be treated differently than their white peers solely based on race. More specifically, the authors wanted to figure out the extent to which black kids were dehumanized. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” author Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA told the American Psychological Association. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Second, the more specific context of how society sees and treats African American young men is captured in the controversies surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman (and the coded use of “thug”) and Marcus Smart.

Third, the Office for Civil Rights (USDOE) has detailed that in-school discipline policies and retention are disproportional by gender and race, and that access to high-quality courses and experienced teachers is also inequitable. “No excuses” practices and zero tolerance policies tend to target high-poverty and racial minority students as well:

There is abundant evidence that zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect youth of color. Nationally, black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students. Among middle school students, black youth are suspended nearly four times more often than white youth, and Latino youth are roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white youth. And because boys are twice as likely as girls to receive these punishments, the proportion of black and Latino boys who are suspended or expelled is especially large.  Nationally, nearly a third (31 percent) of black boys in middle school were suspended at least once during the 2009–10 school year. Part of this dynamic is that under-resourced urban schools with higher populations of black and Latino students are generally more likely to respond harshly to misbehavior. (p. 3)

Fourth, the race, class, and gender inequity found in school discipline is replicated and intensified in the mass incarceration of African American males in the U.S.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, the historical context must be addressed. Consider first James Baldwin speaking in 1963, Take This Hammer:

And also, consider Baldwin writing in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies.

How much different, then, is our world when we listen carefully to Lee:

Yeah, it’s hard. And when a kid walks in and they’re immediately seen as a delinquent, that perception and notion is thrust upon a person immediately. Despite the fact that I’m quote-unquote successful and have a career and have a graduate degree, you know, I still have a darn hard time getting a cab, and this is even if I’m in a suit or not.

If you’re not a really strong person, it can destroy you ’cause it’s constant chipping away at your psyche, you know, and I realized this in 9th grade. I thought there’s inequity in the world and it’s not going to change. What am I going to do?

The conclusions about impoverished males drawn from the WTO experiment and Lee’s personal story suggest that Baldwin’s warnings remain disturbingly true:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’”; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

The disadvantage of being impoverished, African American, and male remains powerfully staggering, far beyond “doubly” and something we seem unable to confront much less address.

James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78

James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78

INTERVIEWER

Do you think painters would help a fledgling writer more than another writer might? Did you read a great deal?

BALDWIN

I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. I’m sure that my life in France would have been very different had I not met Balzac. Even though I hadn’t experienced it yet, I understood something about the concierge, all the French institutions and personalities. The way that country and its society works. How to find my way around in it, not get lost in it, and not feel rejected by it. The French gave me what I could not get in America, which was a sense of “If I can do it, I may do it.” I won’t generalize, but in the years I grew up in the U.S., I could not do that. I’d already been defined.

The Mistrial of Jordan Davis: More Evidence Problems for Denying Racism

In On the Killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, Ta-Nehisi Coates confronts the injustice of simply being born an African American son:

Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.

These words—”We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant”—echo James Baldwin writing in 1966:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

In this essay, Baldwin lays bare the scar of racism in the U.S.:

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

Post-racial discourse offers make-up, seeks a bit of cosmetic surgery for that scar, but denying racism doesn’t erase racism. The Michael Dunn verdict as partially a “mistrial” is a bitter but apt term for the lack of justice when the victim is an African American young man.

Failing to convict Dunn is more of the evidence problem facing those who seek to deny racism in the U.S.

Baldwin’s essay from 1966 simply remains a chilling echo behind Coates’s final words:

I will not respect the lie. I would rather be thought crazy.

I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson’s genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings, that George Washington’s abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge, that the G.I Bill’s accolades are somehow inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.

For young African American men in the U.S., the options appear incredibly narrow between the mass incarceration machine rightly called The New Jim Crow and victimization that can never find justice as Baldwin warned: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

Jordan Davis, like Trayvon Martin, joins a growing list of casualties for whom we cannot even sigh rest in peace.

See also:

Black Boy Interrupted, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Fight With Us Too, Damnit (Educators and Jordan Davis), Jose Vilson

C-SPAN: James Baldwin January 15, 1979

C-SPAN: James Baldwin January 15, 1979

In this 1979 speech Mr. Baldwin talked about being a black writer, about the civil rights movement, and other topics.

“They know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie….The American idea of progress, when Americans talk about progress, they mean how fast I become white. And it’s a trick bag because they know perfectly well I can never become white….

“There is a reason, there is a reason, that no one wants our children unto this day educated.”

—January 15, 1979, James Baldwin Speech