Date: December 20, 1987, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 27, Column 3; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Amiri Baraka
First of all, Jimmy Baldwin was not only a writer, an international literary figure, he was a man, spirit, voice - old and black and terrible as that first ancestor.
As man, he came to us from the family, the human lives, names we can call David, Gloria, Lover, George, Samuel, Barbara, Ruth, Elizabeth, Paula…and this extension is one intimate identification as he could so casually, in that way of his, eyes and self smiling, not much larger than that first ancestor, fragile as truth always is, big eyes popped out like righteous monitors of the soulful. The Africans say that big ol’ eyes like that means someone can make things happen! And didn’t he?
Between Jimmy’s smile and grace, his insistent elegance even as he damned you, even as he smote what evil was unfortunate, breathing or otherwise, to stumble his way. He was all the way live, all the way conscious, turned all the way up, receiving and broadcasting, sometime so hard, what needed to, would back up from those two television tubes poking out of his head!
As man, he was my friend, my older brother he would joke, not really joking. As man, he was Our friend, Our older or younger brother, we listened to him like we would somebody in our family - whatever you might think of what he might say. We could hear it. He was close, as man, as human relative, we could make it some cold seasons merely warmed by his handshake, smile or eyes. Warmed by his voice, jocular yet instantly cutting. Kind yet perfectly clear. We could make it sometimes, just remembering his arm waved in confirmation or indignation, the rapid-fire speech, pushing out at the world like urgent messages for those who would be real.
This man traveled the earth like its history and its biographer. He reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us think, made us better, made us consciously human or perhaps more acidly pre-human.
He was spirit because he was living. And even past this tragic hour when we weep he has gone away, and why, and why we keep asking. There’s mountains of evil creatures who we would willingly bid farewell to - Jimmy could have given you some of their names on demand - we curse our luck, our oppressors - our age, our weakness. Why & Why again? And why can drive you mad, or said enough times might even make you wise!
Yet this why in us is him as well. Jimmy was wise from asking whys giving us his wise and his whys to go with our own, to make them into a larger why and a deeper Wise.
Jimmy’s spirit, which will be with us as long as we remember ourselves, is the only truth which keeps us sane and changes our whys to wiseness. It is his spirit, spirit of the little black first ancestor, which we fell those of us who really felt it, we know this spirit will be with us for ”as long as the sun shines and the water flows.” For his is the spirit of life thrilling to its own consciousness.
When we saw and heard him, he made us feel good. He made us feel, for one thing, that we could defend ourselves or define ourselves, that we were in the world not merely as animate slaves, but as terrifyingly sensitive measurers of what is good or evil, beautiful or ugly. This is the power of his spirit. This is the bond which created our love for him. This is the fire that terrifies our pitiful enemies. That not only are we alive but shatteringly precise in our songs and our scorn. You could not possibly think yourself righteous, murderers, when you saw or were wrenched by our Jimmy’s spirit! He was carrying it as us, as we carry him as us.
Jimmy will be remembered, even as James, for his word. Only the completely ignorant can doubt his mastery of it. Jimmy Baldwin was the creator of contemporary American speech even before Americans could dig that. He created it so we could speak to each other at unimaginable intensities of feeling, so we could make sense to each other at yet higher and higher tempos.
But that word, arranged as art, sparkling and gesturing from the page, was also man and spirit. Nothing was more inspiring than hearing that voice, seeing that face, and that whip of a tongue, that signification that was his fingers, reveal and expose, raise and bring down, condemn or extol!
It was evident he loved beauty - art, but when the civil rights movement pitched to its height, no matter his early estheticism and seeming hauteur, he was our truest definer, our educated conscience made irresistible by his high consciousness.
Jimmy was a ”civil rights leader” too, at the same time!, thinkers of outmoded social outrage. He was in the truest tradition of the great artists of all times. Those who understand it is beauty and truth we week, and that indeed one cannot exist without and as an extension of the other.
At the hot peak of the movement Jimmy was one of its truest voices. His stance, that it is our judgment of the world, the majority of us who still struggle to survive the bestiality of so-called civilization (the slaves), that is true and not that of our torturers, was a dangerous profundity and as such fuel for our getaway and liberation!
He was our consummate complete man of letters, not as an unliving artifact, but as a black man we could touch and relate to even there in that space filled with black fire at the base and circumference of our souls. And what was supremely ironic is that for all his estheticism and ultr-so-phistication, there he was now demanding that we get in the world completely, that we comprehend the ultimate intelligence of our enforced commitment to finally bring humanity to the world!
Jimmy’s voice, as much as Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s, helped shepherd and guide us toward black liberation.
Let us hold him in our hearts and minds. Let us make him part of our invincible black souls, the intelligence of our transcendence. Let our black hearts grow big world-absorbing eyes like his, never closed. Let us one day be able to celebrate him like he must be celebrated if we are ever to be truly self-determining. For Jimmy was God’s black revolutionary mouth. If there is a God, and revolution His righteous natural expression. And elegant song the deepest & most fundamental common-place of being alive.
(Source: The New York Times)