On Finding James Baldwin

One never knows what you’ll find on the drooping shelves of a second hand store in a dead logging town situated in a phony plantation watershed.

I found James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, in such a store. First paperback printing, 1961. Mint condition. Uncut. A dime.

I bought it and wondered if James Baldwin had ever visited Oregon or seen a clearcut, or met a logger. Probably not. I vaguely recalled reading snippets of his essays and novels, but had never fully engaged with him as a writer and activist. I hadn’t watched the recently released acclaimed film documentary about him, either.

A few days later, I dipped into the collection. In the introduction, Baldwin wrote, “I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are.”

I like to believe that during the past two years of my upended life, I have never practiced self-delusion. I would have never made it this far if I had. I have had many, many hours, days, months, of exile to consider myself and the world around me. I believe I have learned to see anew and I hope to share my sights and insights with a new audience in the coming years. It may not happen.

Baldwin wrote that his writing life was, “entirely up to me.”

That is precisely where mine is now. Where it has always been. Only this iteration will be a harder swim, up a river at flood stage with trees and water heaters to dodge in the current.

Baldwin’s ideas and directives in this book confirmed my approach to writing about what’s happened to me. Baldwin wanted to explode the mythology of American life and discover what was happening here, on the ground, face to face. He said it was up to the American writer to do this. He didn’t mention another profession.