I started reading James Baldwin's essays because he gave voice to my rage. The rage of growing up other in America. Of trying to scratch the darkness out of my skin. Of wanting my father's name to be Sam, not Sadruddin.
I was convinced that the very soil of this country rejected people of my Indian ethnicity and my Muslim faith. So, like Baldwin, I left. He to France, me to India. And I took along his essays for commiseration. I wanted a companion in exile.
But when I read his work more carefully in India, I found myself squirming with discomfort. Accused of stealing bed sheets from a hotel in Paris, Baldwin was thrown in a French jail, where he could neither plead with the police officers, nor demand his due-process rights. Those were American values that were disregarded in France.
Baldwin allowed me to admit that my own Americanness was coming to the surface in India. I made small talk with the waiter, surprising my Indian friends, who thought such people were below them. I might have felt marginalized in America, but two days in India was all I needed to realize that there was no magical place called home on the other side of the world.
Many essayists are like lawyers — they tell stories to support their case. They repeat their argument over and over. Baldwin does the opposite. He is a master of the sublime surprise. Baldwin's long, languid sentences charm you into a familiar world, but as soon as you get comfortable, Baldwin offers a sharply unexpected insight.
In a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, Baldwin notes somewhat bitterly that racism is still alive and well in America, and the celebration is happening 100 years too soon. But he also says that one key to ending racism is for black people to learn to accept white people, and "to accept them with love ... (because) they are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand."
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin builds on this thought and writes that black people and white people "deeply need each other," and together, "we may be able ... to achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
The startling insights in Baldwin's writing helped me see both my own experience, and my country's possibilities, in a different light.
I still have strong opinions, but before I swell up with self-righteous rage, I try to remind myself that writing is about following questions, not pounding home answers. As Baldwin said, "it is part of the business of the writer ... to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source."
During a time in my life when I was reaching for a hammer, Baldwin showed me what it meant to use a pen.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.