I was seeking out poetry tonight, as I tend to do when I’m feeling low, but nothing was quite clicking. A few had some interesting lines, but nothing I felt motivated to do a longer post about. Then, I came across the brilliant James Baldwin while scrolling through Twitter and this clip from one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, which is about him, I Am Not Your Negro:
In a way, there’s something poetic about how Baldwin even talks, and how he looks, and how he moves. That sort of poetry in thought and poetry in motion moved me more tonight than actual words of poetry.
The larger point in this short clip Baldwin is making about how the future America hinges on white Americans self-examining why it is they created this entire class of people who were less-than, and what it means to go forward with that class of people now being recognized as full citizens with all the rights and privileges therein is obviously an interesting and potent one. To Baldwin, the work that needs to be done is by white people, not black people. It wasn’t black people that created the n-word designation. It wasn’t black people that chose to be second class citizens. And so, the future of the country hinges on whether white America will undergo such an examination, and in the years since he made that comment, we could discuss whether that’s happened or not (spoiler: I’m not so sure it ever did en masse).
But for the purposes of tonight, what I’m interested in is the quote at the top of the clip:
That sure gets to the heart of the matter, right? To be alive, to be breathing, to be struggling through the world, is necessarily to be an optimist. That doesn’t mean naïveté is the operating undercurrent, but rather, that the struggle is for something better and to move in a better direction. Otherwise, there’s a certain level of, as Baldwin notes, detached observation as one moves through life, as if they’re not actually the subject moving through life. And in that way, the operating principle seems cynicism veering into nihilism.
Now, I’ve also written a lot about Ta-Nehisi Coates and I also admire his work, and his insight is relevant here, too. I believe it exists somewhere between Baldwin’s viewpoint and that of the pessimist/nihilist. That is, Coates’ viewpoint is that there is beauty in the struggle itself — even if the “arc of the moral universe” doesn’t bend toward justice — that struggling for it anyway is beautiful. I mean, he literally titled one of his books, Beautiful Struggle. Some may find what I just said rather peculiar given how many people interpret Coates as a cynic or propagating some sort of antithesis to a hope message, but I don’t see him as a pessimist. It’s more of an aesthetic choice in a way? That is, like Baldwin, Coates is saying, if we’re alive, then we have to struggle for justice. Because, what else are you going to do? Not? But where he would differ from, say, a Barack Obama or a Martin Luther King, Jr., is that Coates wouldn’t add, “And you do so because history will vindicate your struggle.” There’s no grandiosity there. It’s actually a more intimate message. Justice is right in and of itself, and so the struggle for it, by extension, is beautiful in and of itself. It’s a contained system.
I’ve always considered myself an optimist, partly for the same aesthetic reason: pessimism is simply a brute, ugly, detached aesthetic. But, also, it seems like a moral mistake precisely because it’s detached.
As always, I’m thankful for the simple poetry of Baldwin and the thought-provoking work of Coates to invigorate me on a night when I wasn’t feel ready to be invigorated.
What do you think? Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist or perhaps something more in the middle?
He’s become my favourite writer over the last few months when I only read 3 of his novels in a row. It was like finding a new friend from another world. He’s also so damn quotable too. I’ve never read anything better in the English language than this excerpt starting at the end of the first column and into the middle column…
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Brett, exquisite writing of course, thank you for sharing!
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