James Baldwin: The Preacher Poet

James Baldwin: The Preacher Poet


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important,

especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways

in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation

 of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.



Books by and about James Baldwin

 Go Tell It on the Mountain  /   The Fire Next Time  /  Notes of a Native Son  /    If Beale Street Could Talk

Nobody Knows My Name / No Name in the Street

Carol E. Henderson, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain: Historical And Critical Essays. Peter Lang Publishing, 2006.

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James Baldwin: The Preacher Poet

By Kalamu ya Salaam


I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world, to teach children or to convey to the people who have children that everything that lives is holy.—James Baldwin


James Baldwin voiced us—articulated black experiences with a searing intensity that frightened some and enraptured others of us. Even if you could not read, once you heard Baldwin you were convinced of the power of words. His ability to move air was such that the vibrating oxygen Baldwin set in motion spoke to us as surely as if the words had issued from our own mouths.

Baldwin’s sermons (and that’s what his words were, instructions for living) entered us, vital as breathing.

Baldwin’s breath proclaimed what it meant to be flesh, and black. He told us of the here and now, told of barbarians who feared life in others and feared those who truly lived to love rather than to conqueror.

Baldwin spoke of racist hatred for black people, telling us that their hatred was but a mask for the intense hatred they felt for themselves and the sordid, twisted mess they had made of their own lives.

The gritty texture of Baldwin’s voice testified to the realities of black life, the ups, the downs, the terrors, as well as the hard-won tenderness found in our usually brief but nonetheless frequent stolen moments of exquisite and redemptive love. He was no romantic, but oh how he loved. He loved us all and gave his all in the love of us.

Indeed his very behavior posed the quintessential question: if not for the opportunity to love, what are we living for? Certainly not labor and toil, nor riches and fame, which we can never take with us when we inevitably exit the world; If we do not love our selves and our children, what will our living matter in the future? And if we do not understand that everyone’s child is our child, then how whole can we be as a human being?

When I was younger, when I thought I had a taste for anger, a yearning for retribution, I was always mystified and sometimes even miffed by Baldwin’s insistence on love. Now I am older, directed by the wisdom of age: sooner or later, most of us grow tired of fighting but we never tire of love.

What was bracing about Baldwin was his insistence that we be humans regardless of how inhuman our tormentors might act, and as Baldwin so eloquently reminded us, their behavior was an act, most likely a ruse to mask their fear of us, or worse yet a lie to camouflage their fear that they were not what they tried to make us believe they were; they were not gods, conquerors, lords and such. No. They were merely what we all are, human beings trying to survive and prosper.

It is easy to think of Baldwin as an Old Testament prophet, raining down fire and brimstone. He was, after all, a professional evangelist as a teen. It is easy to think of Baldwin as a Shakespeare in and of Harlem since his command of language is now legendary. But it is wrong to reference Baldwin solely from outside of black culture. Think of this black voice as a life-force, as the sound of us, as the sound of living, as a drum. A drum, an insistent beating drum whose rhythm was synchronous with our own heartbeats.

The fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard. Only once your heart was moved by the way this man moved words could you fully understand the power he brought to us who were told time and time again, in a million ways, day, night and seemingly always that we were totally powerless, or at least powerless to prevent first our enslavement and now our ongoing oppression and exploitation.

The power Baldwin brought to us was a clear-eyed recognition of world realities, we, just as everyone else, were the range of behaviors and emotions, memories and dreams that it means to be human, and as such our task was to be the best human we could be, which best necessarily meant the embracing of other humans. You are a human and you must embrace other humans is a powerful message to give to those who have been taught otherwise.

And this fire to be wholly human that Baldwin breathed into our lives was no mere mental exercise. Baldwin went far, far beyond thinking because he spoke with a passion for life, a passion to get the most out of life even as he admitted that as we struggled on inevitably we would err, we would make mistakes, we would fail from time to time, even backslide, and knowingly do wrong, after all we are humans and that’s part of what humans do, but Baldwin would remind us as long as we are alive we have the opportunity, indeed we have the obligation to correct our mistakes and to strive to be better than we have been.

Baldwin was telling us: grow up. Of course, you’ve been done wrong and you’ve done wrong. We all have. We all have been done wrong. We all have done wrong. Grow up, face life. All the wrong in the world does not mean that you and I can’t do what’s right.

And ultimately, while James Baldwin the writer is important, James Baldwin the human voice is equally important, especially now that the technology exists so that we can all hear him, we can all experience the ways in which he manipulated human sounds of communication. In other words, the fullest appreciation of James Baldwin the writer is not totally understood until James Baldwin the voice is heard.

Baldwin was full of passion and the very fire light of life. To reduce him simply to books is to miss the music that this man made of words.

Thus, if you think you know James Baldwin, if you think you love our literature and you have never heard him deliver the word, and you do not have his spoken word CD, then you don’t really know the breadth and depth of James Baldwin.

James_Baldwin_-_Inventory_On_Being_52.mp3 (18686 KB)


Music by David Linx, Pierre Van Dormael

James Baldwin – narration

David Linx – vocals, drums, percussion

Pierre Van Dormael – guitar

Michel Hatzigeorgiou – bass

Deborah Brown – vocals

Viktor Lazlo – vocals

Steve Coleman – alto saxophone

Slide Hampton – trombone

Jimmy Owens – trumpet, fluegelhorn

Pierre Vaiana – tenor saxophone

Diederik Wissels – piano

Between September 19, 1986 and September 18, 1987, James Baldwin spent a year working on a spoken word CD with producers/composers/musicians David Linx and Pierre Van Dormael. Recorded in Brussels, Brooklyn and New York City, A Lover’s Question (Label Beu, Harmonia Mundi) is a masterpiece of merging words with music: a precursor to what is now a popular artform.

The producers succeed in more than providing a sonic backdrop for the words; they actually composed orchestrations that both complemented and mirrored the intent and expression inherent in Baldwin’s delivery of his complex poems. The success is then on three levels: the poems are phat, the music is tight, and the musicians respond with an exhilarating verve that let’s you know they too were giving their all, giving their love and not simply going through the changes to get paid.

Aside from a brief musical introduction and an elegiac solo rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord” on which Baldwin talk-sings the famous gospel composition, there are only three poems on this CD. One poem, “The Art of Love,” features operatic vocalist Deborah Brown and is done as an art song, an interlude between two poetic suites.

The two-part “A Lover’s Question” continues in the vein of The Fire Next Time. Baldwin questions the citizens of his birth nation as to their desire to hate: “Why / have you allowed / yourself / to become so grimly / wicked?” and “No man can have a / harlot / for a lover / nor stay in bed forever / with a lie. / He must rise up / and face the morning / sky / and himself, in the / mirror / of his lover’s eye.” As Baldwin knew, true love is always honest even though honesty is seldom an easy fact to live with in a land where lies and commerce replace truth and reciprocity.

The concluding number is the three part opus “Inventory / On Being 52” and it is the introspective Baldwin fingering his own wounds (some of them self-inflicted). He does not flinch as he cross-examines his own life and realizes the terrible costs of his mistakes, the terrible beauty of embracing both the terrors and joys of being human. Baldwin manages in a stream of consciousness style to encourage us to live the good life, suggesting that the good life is a different life from the life/lie that too many of us live. Baldwin encourages us not simply to march to the beat of a different drummer, Baldwin tenderly implores us to be different drummers. 

Tap out the real rhythms of life with our every footstep in the dark, our every embrace of what we and others are and can become. Reject the ultimately tiresome and ephemeral wisdom of materialism / accept the rejuvenating life-cycle rhythm of the earth. Thus Baldwin says “Perhaps the stars will / help, / or the water, / a stone may have / something to tell me, / and I owe a favor to a / couple of old trees.”

“Inventory / On being 52” is a deep song, but then, as he says, “My father’s son / does not easily / surrender. / My mother’s son / pressed on.” Every young poet needs this old man’s CD in their collection, this compass of compassion, this example of the passionate heights the spoken word can attain. If you as a poet do not know A Lover’s Question then you do not know the full history of your own human heartbeat.


James Baldwin. His life, his teachings, his commitment, his words embody one of the great paradoxes of the contradictions of life—and regardless of misplace beliefs in idealism, in an eternal anything, in a person being solely and only one thing or another, regardless of our worship of the false idol of ideas and dualism—experience teaches us, all life, every life is contradictory. In fact, to be alive is a contradiction, is a fight against death, literal death, symbolic death, the death of compassion, the death of our own humanity in terms of how we relate to others and the world we live in.

Life is a contradiction, and as such, isn’t it wonderful for us to realize that one of the most insistent prophets, preachers, and poets of love was a queer, black man standing against the homophobia, standing against the misogyny (and surely hating women also means hating the earth), standing against the racism, and all the other -isms endemic to the place and time within which Baldwin was born.

James Baldwin. Clearly modeling for all of us what it meant to be a man, and more importantly what it meant to be human and live in a time of institutional war and inhumanity.

I love James Baldwin. 

Note: [The first version of this essay, essentially most of part 1, was originally published in Mosaic Literary Magazine, Spring 1999. The second version of this essay, part 1 & part 2, was originally published as part of the booklet accompanying the 1999 reissue of A Lover’s Question.]

Source: WordUp

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James Baldwin—interview pt. 1 / James Baldwin—interview pt. 2

Excerpt of speech from film James Baldwin Anthology

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Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck—but, most of all, enduranceJames Baldwin (1924 – 1987)

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James Baldwin on Malcolm X (1 of 3) (2 of 3) / (3 of 3)

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James Baldwin: the Price of the Ticket  /  James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. Debate

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Take This Hammer—James Baldwin in San Francisco

KQED’s mobile film unit follows author and activist James Baldwin in the spring of 1963, as he’s driven around San Francisco to meet with members of the local African-American community. He is escorted by Youth For Service’s Executive Director Orville Luster and intent on discovering: “The real situation of Negroes in the city, as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present.” He declares: “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. Someone’s got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.” Includes frank exchanges with local people on the street, meetings with community leaders and extended point-of-view sequences shot from a moving vehicle, featuring the Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods. Baldwin reflects on the racial inequality that African-Americans are forced to confront and at one point tries to lift the morale of a young man by expressing his conviction that: “There will be a Negro president of this country but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.” The TV Archive would like to thank Darryl Cox for championing the merits of this film and for his determination that it be preserved and remastered for posterity.

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Ancient African Nations

The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings

By James Baldwin

Baldwin’s published essays have been already twice collected (The Price of the Ticket and the posthumous Library of America Collected Essays), but there are gems in this collection compiled by Kenan (Let the Dead Bury the Dead): “The Fight: Patterson vs. Liston” is as impeccably crafted as a short story; “Blacks and Jews” captures the speaking Baldwin and echoes the call-and-response tradition. The 54 pieces, none previously appearing in book form, range from Baldwin’s first published book review in 1947 to a 1984 colloquy with college students. Baldwin’s topic can often be subsumed under race, but he most consistently wrestles with questions of moral integrity—in the language (“The Uses of the Blues”), in the artist’s work (“Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare”), in the assessment of history (“On Being White . . . and Other Lies”), and in one’s personal life (“To Crush a Serpent”). Kenan’s introduction and headnotes are models of critical good sense; his awareness of both “Baldwin’s achievements that beggar the imagination,” and of the “grab bag” quality of some pieces makes him the perfect shepherd for these “lost” works.

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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

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The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1995

By James Baldwin

The works of James Baldwin constitute one of the major contributions to American literature in the twentieth century, and nowhere is this more evident than in The Price of the Ticket, a compendium of nearly fifty years of Baldwin’s powerful nonfiction writing. With truth and insight, these personal, prophetic works speak to the heart of the experience of race and identity in the United States. Here are the full texts of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, and The Devil Finds Work, along with dozens of other pieces, ranging from a 1948 review of Raintree Country to a magnificent introduction to this book that, as so many of Mr. Baldwin’s works do, combines his intensely private experience with the deepest examination of social interaction between the races. In a way, The Price of the Ticket is an intellectual history of the twentieth-century American experience; in another, it is autobiography of the highest order.

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

This video chronicles the life and times of the noted African-American historian, scholar and Pan-African activist John Henrik Clarke (1915-1998). Both a biography of Clarke himself and an overview of 5,000 years of African history, the film offers a provocative look at the past through the eyes of a leading proponent of an Afrocentric view of history. From ancient Egypt and Africa’s other great empires, Clarke moves through Mediterranean borrowings, the Atlantic slave trade, European colonization, the development of the Pan-African movement, and present-day African-American history.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 12 August 2010





James Baldwin Table   Kalamu ya Salaam Table

Related files:  Noise of Class Ideology  Responses to Skip Gates’   The Talented Fifth   Master of the Intellectual Dodge   Gates the Birth Encarta Africana

The Fire Last Time   Cleaver and Gates  Lincoln on Race and Slavery   Skip Gates and the Talented Fifth  Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man

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