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A Brother’s Love August 2, 2020

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“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”

 

– Muhammad Ali

Yesterday I referred to Maria Mitchell as an impossible woman. Back in 2016, thanks to Justin Timberlake quoting Muhammad Ali to a bunch of teens, I started thinking about what it meant to be an impossible person and spent the first week in August highlighting impossible people. Born today in Harlem, New York, in 1924, the author James Baldwin is – by his own words – my second impossible person.

“Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

Mr. Baldwin’s life (and career) were, in so many ways, shaped by a combination of the opinions of his father (who he referred to as his father), his stepfather’s opinion of how the world would view him, how the world actually viewed him, and his own ideas about what was possible – or, what was necessary. He spent the ages of 14 – 17 following his father’s footsteps into the ministry and then, when his father died, he took a giant leap. He said, “Those were three years [preaching] which probably turned me to writing.”

Mr. Baldwin not only leapt into writing. He leapt across the pond to Paris, France, twice, even as his writing challenged Western society’s conceptions about race, class, gender, and sexuality. His essays, novels, and plays include Giovanni’s Room, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk (which was recently made into a movie) and the unfinished manuscript Remember This House (which was adapted to create the 2016 Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro). Mr. Baldwin first went to Paris with $40 and not a lick of French. He was 24 years old, coming to grips with his sexuality, and escaping what he viewed – what he had witnessed – was a death sentence at the hands of American society.

“Not so metaphorically. Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing. And they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

 

– James Baldwin, quoted from the interview “James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78” by Jordan Elgrably (printed in The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984)

From Paris, he was able to not only gain perspective about his experiences of being Black in America (and of being Black and Gay in America), but also to offer those experience back to the United States – in the form of a literary mirror. In words that very much echo Miss Maria Mitchell’s words, he said wanted to see himself, and be seen as, more than “merely a Negro; or, merely a Negro writer.”

In his late 30’s/early 40’s, Mr. Baldwin briefly returned to the United States and physically participated in the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Liberation Movement that he had (from Paris) helped to literally inspire. He became friends with Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, and Nina Simone (who he and Mr. Hughes convinced to become active in the Civil Rights Movement). He worked with Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, as well as Lena Horne and Miss Hansberry, to discuss the importance of civil rights legislation with President John F. Kennedy.

His friendships, however, were not only with Black artists and activists. He worked with his childhood friend Richard Avedon, marched with Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston, collaborated with Margaret Mead and Sol Stein, and also knew Rip Torn, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Dorothea Tanning. In fact, to read a biography or biography of James Baldwin is to read a who’s who of activism and artistry in the 20th century. But, you don’t have to settle for a reading a measly biography. If you can get your hands on the 1,884 pages of documents compiled by the FBI, you would be in for quite a treat.

Yes, you read that correctly. For a little over a decade, the FBI collected nearly two thousand pages worth of documents on a man many Americans may not realize helped convince President Kennedy to send federal troops to defend the civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery. True, it’s not the well-over 17,000 pages they compiled on Martin Luther King (not including the wire-tap documents). Here, however, is some perspective: the FBI only collected 276 pages on authors like Richard Wright (Native Son), 110 pages on Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), and Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer). Additionally, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover showed a particular interest in Mr. Baldwin and actually worked with agents to figure out ways they could ban Mr. Baldwin’s 1962 novel Another Country – despite the fact that the report of the Justice Department’s General Crimes Section “concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior.”

“The occurrence of an event is not the same thing as knowing what it is that one has lived through. Most people had not lived — nor could it, for that matter, be said that they had died– through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain. The great question that faced him this morning was whether or not had had ever, really, been present at his life.”

 

– quoted from Another Country by James Baldwin

 

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

 

– quoted from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

When so many of his friends, who were also the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, were killed, Mr. Baldwin made his second leap back to Paris. Again, it was a leap made out of fear and the basic desire to survive. His grief, anger, horror, and disappointment are all on full display in later works like If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head, and the 1985 non-fiction book  Evidence of Things Not Seen (about the Atlanta child murders). Yet, until his dying day he wrote about love and hope – even using a portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, from the Christian New Testament, as the title of the his book about the Atlanta child murders.

Another place where you can see Mr. Baldwin’s devotion to love, life, and humanity is in the words of his friends; people, who actually knew him, were inspired by him, and some who called him Jim or Jimmy. When he died in 1987, Maya Angelou wrote a tribute for The New York Times, entitled “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language.” In addition to describing how Mr. Baldwin introduced her to his family as his mother’s newest daughter, she explained that he “opened the [unusual] door” and encouraged her to tell her story.

“Well, the season was always Christmas with you there and, like one aspect of that scenario, you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts. You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention….

 

The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who would go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world; courage to understand that experience in ways that made it a personal revelation for each of us…. Yours was the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges, to see and say what was, to recognize and identify evil, but never fear or stand in awe of it….

 

The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate that I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did. In the midst of anger it tapped me lightly like the child in Tish’s womb…. Yours was a tenderness, of vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything and, like the world’s own Merlin, provided us with the ways and means to deliver. I suppose that was why I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable, wanting to be worth the love you lavished, and wanting to be steady enough to bear while it broke your heart, wanting to be generous enough to join your smile with one of my own, and reckless enough to jump on in that laugh you laughed. Because our joy and our laughter were not only all right, they were necessary.”

– quoted from  “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered; Life In His Language” by Maya Angelou (printed in The New York Times Book Review December 20, 1987)

I have cancelled class today and tomorrow night, but encourage you to practice. Practice with those aforementioned gifts and especially the second and third gifts – with courage and tenderness that has you lifting the corners of your mouth up to your ears and laughing out loud.

In the past, I have used a variation of my “Langston Hughes” playlist, which features Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and a whole lot of Bach. You are welcome to use my “Selma to Montgomery” playlist, which is available on YouTube. However, if you have time, I would encourage you to grab some Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte (“Merci Bon Dieu” comes to mind, of course), Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joan Baez – and then mix in some of the aforementioned jazz.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth….Love is a growing up.”

 

 

– James Baldwin

 

### OPEN THE DOOR, & LET ME IN (OR OUT)! ###

In the beginning… June 28, 2020

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“[It was] a perfect event in my life because it let me live the kinds of dreams I had of seeing an equitable society. I was able to live my life, which I would have done anyway, but without Stonewall I would have had more opposition. So it turns out the times were on my side, which left me with a basically happy life.”

 

– Martin “Marty” Boyce

It started off like any other regular Friday. People got up, got dressed, went to work (on Wall Street) or to school. Some wrote poetry or songs in a café. Some gathered on a street corner hoping to score their next meal. It was a regular Friday, and people were looking forward to the weekend. They came home or went to a friend’s place. They changed clothes – that was the first spark of something special… but it was still just a regular Friday. People were going to go out, have a good time, sing, dance, gather with friends (maybe do it again on Saturday night), and then spend some time recovering so that, on Monday, they could go back to being regular.

It was a regular Friday… that became an extraordinary Saturday, because at around 1:20 AM on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four policeman dressed in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, a detective, and a deputy inspector from the New York Police Department walked into the Stonewall Inn and announced that they were “taking the place!” It was a raid.

“I was never afraid of the cops on the street, because I was not an obvious person. I was not flaunting my homosexuality to anyone. I wasn’t holding hands. It would never have occurred to me to try and have a confrontation with them [because] you don’t want to be arrested for any stupid reason. I never had any problems with the police. I never had problems with anyone anywhere, until that night…. I never ever gave it a thought of [Stonewall] being a turning point. All I know is enough was enough. You had to fight for your rights. And I’m happy to say whatever happened that night, I was part of it. Because [at a moment like that] you don’t think, you just act.”

 

– Raymond Castro

In some ways, there was still nothing special. The Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan was a Mafia owned “private bottle bar” frequented by members of the GLBTQIA+ community. It was raided on a regular basis, usually at a standard time. Because the bar was Mafia owned, it would normal get a heads up (from someone who knew the raid was coming – wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and just before the raid was scheduled the lights would come up so people could stop holding hands or dancing (both of which were illegal for same sex partners) and any illegal alcohol could be hidden. The police would separate people based on clothing and then a female officer would take anyone wearing a dress into the bathroom in order to check their genitalia. Some people were arrested, but many would go back to the party once the police had taken their leave.

The raid that happened this morning in 1969 was different. There was no warning. No lights came up. No then-illegal activity was hidden. Unbeknownst to the patrons, four undercover officers (two men and two women) had previously been in the bar gathering visual evidence. The police started rounding people up and, also, letting some people go. They were planning to close the bar down. The only problem was…people didn’t leave. The people who were released stayed outside in the street, watching what was happening, and they were eventually joined by hundreds more.

“I changed into a black and white cocktail dress, which I borrowed from my mother’s closet. It was mostly black, empire-waisted, with a white collar. I used to dress with a bunch of older queens and one of them lent me black fishnet stockings and a pair of black velvet pumps…. The cop looked at me and said, ‘Hey, you!’ and I said, ‘Please, it’s my birthday, I’m just about to graduate from high school, I’m only 18,’ and he just let me go! [I was] scared to death that my father would see me on the television news in my mother’s dress.”

 

– Yvonne (also known as Maria) Ritter

At times the crowd was eerily quiet. But then, as Mafia members were brought out, they started to cheer. When employees were brought out, someone yelled, “Gay power,” and someone started to sing. An officer shoved a person in a dress and she started hitting him over the head with her purse. The crowd was becoming larger… and more restless. At some point people started throwing beer bottles and pennies (as a reference to the police being bribed by the Mafia.) This was becoming a problem, but an even bigger problem was when the police found out the second van was delayed. They were stuck.

Then, things went from bad to worse when some of the 13 people arrested (including employees and people not wearing what was considered “gender appropriate clothing”) resisted. One of the women, a lesbian of color, managed to struggle and escape multiple times. At some point there were four officers trying to contain her. When a police officer hit her over the head, she yelled at the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” And they did.

Police officers barricaded themselves and several people they were arresting (some of whom were just in the neighborhood) inside of the bar for safety. The NYPD’s Tactical Patrol Force was called out to free the officers and detainees trapped inside the Stonewall Inn. One witness said that the police were humiliated…and out for blood. The police’s own escalation, in trying to contain the violence, was met with a Broadway chorus style kick-line… and more violence. The escalation continued. At times, people were chasing the police.

The ensuing protests/riots lasted through the weekend and, to a lesser degree, into the next week. The bar re-opened that next night and thousands lined up to get inside. There was more vandalism and more violence, but on Saturday night (June 28th) there were also public displays of affection: at that time, illegal same-sex public displays of affection. People were out.

“It was a rebellion, it was an uprising, it was a civil rights disobedience – it wasn’t no damn riot!”

 

– Stormé DeLarverie

The Stonewall Uprising, the riots and the ensuing protests and celebrations were not the first of their kind. Three years earlier, the Mattachine Society had organized “sip-ins” where people met at bars and openly declared themselves as gay. That kind of organized, peaceful civil disobedience was happening all over the country during the 60’s. Tt was a way to break unjust laws and it temporarily reduced the number of police raids. However, the raids started up again.

Stormé DeLarverie, Marsha P. Johnson, Zazu Nova, Jackie Hormona, Martin “Marty” Boyce, Sylvia Rivera, Raymond Castro, John O’ Brian, and Yvonne “Maria” / “Butch” Ritter were among the people involved in the Stonewall Uprising. The musician Dave Van Ronk (who famously arranged the version of “House of the Rising Sun” made famous by Bob Dylan) was not gay, but he was arrested. Alan Ginsberg, who was gay, would witness the riots and applaud the people who were taking a stand. Village Voice columnist Howard Smith was a straight man who had never been inside the Stonewall Inn until he grabbed his press credentials and made his way into the center of the uprising. Craig Rodwell (owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop) and Fred Sargent (the bookstores manager) started writing and distributing leaflets on behalf of the Mattachine Society. They also drummed up media interest. In addition to Rodwell and Sargent, Dick Leitsch (a member of the Mattachine Society), John O’Brien, and Martha Shelley (a member of the Daughters of Bilitis) would start organizing so that the protest that turned into a riot would come full circle as a protest that created change.

A year later, June 28, 1970, thousands of people returned to Stonewall Inn. They marched from the bar to Central Park in what was then called “Christopher Street Liberation Day.” The official chant was, “Say it loud, gay is proud.” And, I’m betting there was at least one kick line.

Please join me for a 65-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Sunday, June 28th) at 2:30 PM to celebrate Pride. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. PLEASE NOTE: Zoom 5.0 is in effect. If you have not upgraded, you will need to give yourself extra time to log into Zoom. You can always request an audio recording of this practice (or any practice) via email or a comment below.

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

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### SAY IT LOUD ###