Book Report: NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

baldwinThe best writers, storytellers, artists, and thinkers are able to draw a connection between the specific and the general. An essay, a film, or a painting might deal with a specific thing on a surface level, but in the hands of the right person, that

That’s the power of the movie Moonlight, as Soraya Nadia MacDonald discussed recently in The Undefeated, to take the coming-of-age story of a gay black man in the Miami projects and make it feel beautifully, poetically universal.

James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (c1955, Beacon Press, reprinted in 2012 with a new introduction), has that same power. The book is a collection of essays originally published between 1948 and 1955, broken into three parts. The first deals contains three pieces of explicit criticism, assessing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and Carmen Jones, the 1954 all-black film adaptation of the opera Carmen. The second part is composed of three more autobiographical essays, including the titular Notes of a Native Son that discusses Baldwin’s rocky relationship with his father and growing up in pre-war Harlem. Part Three addresses Baldwin’s time in Europe, where he started living in 1948, at the age is 24.

The essays in all three parts perform at least two functions. The first is the surface-level one. The essays in Part One, for example, perform the essential role of criticism, providing insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant works. The personal essays in Part Two discuss the black experience in New York and, briefly, New Jersey and Atlanta. And the essays in the final section discuss the American (and, specifically, black American) experience in post-war Europe.

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Book Report: THE BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE by Ta-Nehisi Coates

coatesThere is a statistic that explains much of white folks’ politics: that most white people do not have any non-white friends. This can be an uncomfortable thing to hear, and that discomfort is a major factor in the cliché of the white person’s one black friend, or the racist’s favorite phrase: “Some of my best friends are black!”

These clichés exist because, of course, most white folks won’t admit to not having any non-white friends. Maybe we’ll point to a co-worker, though it’s likely a co-worker we’ve never invited over for dinner or been out to drinks with except, maybe, at a company happy hour. Or we’ll note a person of color at our church — though seeing somebody every Sunday morning and being very kind and Christian does not make them your friend.

To my recollection, I didn’t have a non-white friend until high school. I mean a real friend. I was friendly with the two black girls in my middle school but that’s it, just friendly. Once I got to high school, I had a Korean-American friend, two Indian-American friends, and one black friend. Again, meaning true friends, the kind you hang out with after school or on weekends — or, in one of those cases, you go on a cruise with as your joint graduation present.

I bring this up because, while I certainly grew up in a white flight neighborhood, I come from (and claim great pride in being from) a very black city. It’s the same city Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his coming-of-age memoir, The Beautiful Struggle (c2015 Spiegel & Grau). But while I recognize many of the places he writes about, Coates’ Baltimore has absolutely nothing in common with the one I grew up in. And not just because he’s 13 years older than me and from the West Side.

Baltimore is a beautiful city. It is mine as much as it is Coates’s, but the two Baltimores might as well be different cities.

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Book Report: FRANCE by Jonathan Fenby

9781250096838Partly because of the way it’s painted itself to the world through a long history of art, geopolitics, and run-of-the-mill tourism salesmanship — but also partly because of our entwined histories — Americans have drawn a number of caricatures of France. Coexistence between two or more of these caricatures seems impossible; each is its own nation, distinct from the others. This speaks to French culture’s complex nature, and also to its complicated history.

There’s the boho-chic France, of the Lost Generation and Shakespeare & Co., of the Left Bank and Gauloises, Beckett and Sartre. This is the France of self-serious art, which may have evolved over the generations but is, always, just so French.

There’s the French idolized by the wealthy, the France of the grand chateaux of the Rhone and Bordeaux, of 246 kinds of cheese, of the Bocuse d’Or and yellow-and-blue Provençal tablecloths.

There’s the France unable to defend itself, the France of surrender, just as bad at defending its 1998 World Cup win as it was the Maginot Line.

And there’s the newest caricature of France, held by a particular sort of person, who views it as a country single-handedly saved by the U.S. — twice — who used their opportunity at 20th Century prosperity to do ludicrous things with taxes while admitting way too many Muslims into the country.

There are more, I’m sure, but the point is clear: If these competing caricatures speak to the complexity of France, they also speak to our (Americans’) inability or unwillingness to genuinely understand the French. We do this at our own peril. While we may share a language and a distant history with the United Kingdom, we arguably have the most in common with the French.

That’s one lesson I learned from reading France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror (c2015, St. Martin’s Press). Its British author Jonathan Fenby was named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for his contributions towards British-French relations, but he emphasizes throughout the book a tension very familiar to students of the American situation: the tension between France’s stated ideals and the actual, lived experience of the French people.

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Help Me Write

Last week, I had the most exceptional time in New Orleans, visiting the town I briefly called home and having the honor of being a groomsman in the best wedding I’ve ever been to. The trip couldn’t have been any better. Except for one thing.

Grabbing a cab from the airport to a friend’s French Quarter apartment we were staying in, we had perhaps the worst driver I’ve ever experienced. He was super aggressive, with a Post-It note over the speedometer so we couldn’t see how fast he was going, and he took us to the wrong address then yelled at us for his mistake.  After those hiccups, to our great relief we finally got to the apartment. I paid, and we went to meet our friend — which is when I realized I left my bag in the cab. I searched up Orleans Street past Bourbon, but he was gone. Long gone, with my bag.

Luckily it was just my carry-on, and we had fatefully decided (after some debate) not to bring a computer or tablet. So no actual valuables were taken. This is still devastating to me, though. As somebody who owns almost nothing of any actual value, I place great importance on things of emotional, sentimental, or intellectual value. And this bag was chock-full of intellectual value.

In it was a draft of my screenplay, marked up with notes for the next revision. Also gone is the notebook with all of my notes for that screenplay, going back nearly a year, along with all the progress I had made while writing for the entire flight to New Orleans. A year’s worth of work, gone.

I’ve spent the last two weeks battling Louis Armstrong International Airport’s ground transportation office, the New Orleans Taxicab & For Hire Bureau, and the cab company itself, New Orleans Carriage Cab. The cab company won’t speak to me, the airport’s ground transportation office doesn’t answer the phone and won’t call me back, and the taxicab bureau is just sitting around waiting for the bag to magically appear.

I doubt I will ever see that bag again.

Here is what worries me: I have a long history of learning new things and giving up about a year into the project — right around when I learn enough to know how far I have to go before any kind of mastery. I begin to despair at the long journey ahead. I fear I’m at that point with this, and I don’t want to be. Right now, I’ve written one short and three mediocre drafts of a full-length adaptation. Have you read a real screenplay, like for Jackie or Captain Fantastic? They’re really good! That little voice in my head — the one each writer or artist has, the one that says, “Why are you even bothering with this? Leave it to the pros, you’re no good” — that guy is relentless right now. And now I’ve hit a major stumbling block.

I want to keep writing. I have the files for my latest draft, of course, but without any of my notes for the latest revision or any of the work and snippets I’ve done throughout the project, where do I even start?

I also lost my personal journal, which was maybe 20 pages from completion. (I have all of my journals going back to when I was 15 — this would be the only one missing.) My notebooks for another full-length I’ve just begun working on and all of my short scripts disappeared with the bag as well.

For the last week, I’ve come home and tried to begin writing, according to that routing I developed last year: Get up, run, go to work, come home from work, write, eat, sleep, repeat. But each night, I’ve had no idea where to begin.

I have no idea what kind of help or support I need to get back into it, but writing is my second-favorite activity (behind running), and discovering screenwriting last year gave me an outlet that I’ve enjoyed more than any before. The adapted screenplay I was working on is worth, oh, say $40,000. Even if I never make that — even if I never sell one at all — I don’t want to stop.

Help me?

In 2016, I Became a Democrat

When I registered to vote after turning 18 in 2004, I (loudly) proclaimed myself to be a Proudly Registered Independent. I’ve been a registered voter in Maryland, Louisiana, and California, and each time I selected that state’s version of “no party preference.” That ended this year, three weeks before my fourth presidential election, when I (quietly) changed my registration to Democrat.

I did this for many, many reasons. My reason for registering independent was a classic version of the argument that the Two Party System Is Bad. I was making that argument in a pretty haughty, pretentious way, believing I was somehow intellectually superior to all the sheep who “belong” to a party. I’ve seen this argument from so many people over the last year, and it always carries that same sense of superiority.

One thing I’ve learned as I’ve matured is that feeling like you’re better or smarter or otherwise superior to somehow often means that you in fact are not. People taking this tact often use it as an excuse for refusing to engage in the system. “The system is bad,” they say, “but if it were this other system that I consider perfect, I would engage.” The system will never get better unless you engage.

Further, the two party system is not necessarily bad. It is certainly different from other, newer democratic systems, and we would do well to adopt many democratic innovations developed in other countries’ newer constitutions. But whereas European democracies have many parties that form coalitions after an election, because of our “first pass the post” electoral system, we create our broad left and right coalitions before our elections, in the form of the Democratic and Republication parties.

I am proud to have joined the coalition that is working for good, for unity, for love, and for inclusiveness rather than the one operating out of anger, hate, fear, and exclusion. Continue reading

Thoughts on the New Year, 2017 Edition

It sure looks like I’m late with this, the sixth(!) edition of my annual New Years essay. And technically, I am — I typically post on December 31st or January 1, depending on my schedule. This year, I actually wrote it early, writing over 1,200 words on Wednesday, December 28. Though it was ready to post, I never hit “publish.” I just couldn’t. It was too intense, too personal. It felt right when I wrote it, but I couldn’t put myself out there like that.

Here’s an excerpt:

But still I’m finishing this year in a deep, dark funk paralleled only by the Great Financial Freakout of 2013, when my material situation was so bad and it affected my psychological health in such a way that I was worried for my safety. The way I described it to my wife earlier this week — immediately before getting mad at her for nothing at all — is that I feel like I’m riding a wave of anger. I almost said that I’m sitting in a cloud of negativity, but that’s not quite right. It’s a wave of anger carrying me along against my will, crashing into and destroying every little ship it comes across.

Get a load of that shit. How self-involved and mopey can I get? That reads like my angsty journal entries from when I was 17.

That version of this essay focused entirely too much on last year, but in this new version I still want to look backward a little bit. 2016 did end with me feeling pretty down but it wasn’t all bad. I turned 30 and ate around 20 different pies (only a small slice of each, except for the really good ones). I had the best weekend of the year in Santa Barbara in the spring, for a friend’s wedding. My wife continues to be the best person I’ve ever known — in 2017 I hope to be even just a fraction as great as her — and with our rascal of a cat we have the best family I could hope for right now.

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