Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of) Dear Barack Obama

U.S. Postal Service tribute stamp featuring author James Baldwin

U.S. Postal Service tribute stamp featuring author James Baldwin

Dear Mr. Baldwin-

If I were not writing this letter to you as one of my favorite authors, I would probably be writing it to Barack Obama because there is a great deal about him which tends to remind me of a great deal about you. The sentence structures he employs in his memoir, Dreams from My Father , often curve in and out of passages that virtually sing with eloquence and yet, at times, shout with an unruly detachment  in defense of truths many people generally prefer not to hear. The first time I heard such courageous music pour from the pages of a book or witnessed syllables explode like miniature bombs of revelation was when I read your Notes of a Native Son, then later The Fire Next Time.

Your birthdays are very close too-his on August 4, only two days after yours. But he was born in 1961, just after you turned thirty-seven. In that same history-forging year when you published the book of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, addressed members of CORE in Washington, D.C., met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, traveled all the way to Israel and Istanbul, Turkey, and then, by the end of the year, completed what some still consider one of most controversial novels ever published in the North America: Another Country.

Mr. Obama reminds me of you also because he could have easily chosen for himself and his family a fairly quiet life in which he might have enjoyed the comforts of substantial earnings and the respect of his peers minus the constant public jabs he now endures while working, seemingly unceasingly, on behalf on his countrymen. By the same token, you in 1954 could have elected to enjoy a nonstop bohemian party in Paris, France-hanging out with mega-diva Josephine Baker, fellow author Chester Himes, and the disturbingly brilliant artist Beauford Delaney– instead of returning home to be spat upon while dodging rocks and bullets as you marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. and many thousands more to confirm, with spilled blood and weeping souls, our country’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy.  Through essays, plays, and novels, you wrestled as naked as naked gets with the operational dynamics of race relations, sexual identity, and social imbalances as you witnessed them. Such a quintessential artist-activist did you become that it was impossible to ignore you.

President Obama appears to me have elevated and implemented the artist-activist concept to the role of empowered servant-leader, as creative in his vision of the world’s possibilities as you were in yours, and as dedicated to the battle to help humanity liberate itself from the collective fears, prejudices, and ignorance that has yet to contribute anything of functional value to the world community. He is also impossible to ignore; so much so, in fact, that an entire new would-be political party/movement has formed to generate automatic negative criticisms of his every move or spoken word, whether instinctively brushing aside a fly or placing his well-traveled feet atop his desk. And you know what else? He said his favorite novelist is your old friend, Toni Morrison , and that he is particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorites as well.

Speaking of Ms. Morrison, I recall your description of her (in the late 1970s I believe it was) as “This rather elegant matron with quite serious intentions.” You had already been resting in peace for six years when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, but I had no doubt that on that day you, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and a gang of others were all slurping celestial champagne and dancing to the glorious boom of Mahalia Jackson’s gospel-anointed voice.

Sorry, I kind of got off track. I wanted to say the reason I’m writing this letter to you today instead of to Barack Obama is because, for some reason, last night I was thinking about my own literary works and suddenly recalled your statement that you wanted mostly, “to be an honest man and a good writer.” And then today I received an email from the folks at Red Room suggesting members consider writing a letter to a favorite author, living or deceased. Just like that, you popped into my head and I heard myself talking with you, somewhat similar to the time I was writing my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and got stuck somewhere about halfway through it. I saw you in a dream when you said, “Shit baby, you slamming those keys like I used to! Don’t stop now, it’s getting better than you know.” The dream-I always remember it because you were dressed like a guru with long strings of colorful Mardi gras-like beads around your neck– dissolved my writer’s block and I pushed on to the novel’s completion.

Author James Baldwin getting the job done. (UPI file photo)

During the four years I was stationed with the Air Force in England, you were still alive, and I was tempted every pay day to spend the rent money and car payment on a ticket to fly or float across the English Channel and see if I could track you down in the village of St. Paul de Vence. I was always proud of myself when I resisted the temptation, even while I shook like a junkie hungry for a fix in the worst way, and placed the endangered funds in my wife’s hands.  I told myself I would get there at some point, and clearly had no way of knowing that less than a year after getting out of the Air Force, I would be in Florida, collecting unemployment checks and working on a book, when the news would hit that you had died from stomach cancer. I didn’t get pissed about never having spent the rent money to visit your home in France. I simply got drunk and read random passages from your books.

Once, I came across a response from Maya Angelou to critics who compared your works in fiction unfavorably to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Angelou said there was no question that Invisible Man is a masterpiece but she held you in great esteem because you “did the work and produced the books.” At the time, Invisible Man was Ellison’s only published novel and would remain so for the rest of his life.  By the time of your death, you would have published some eight novels, at least as many volumes of nonfiction, four plays, and a collection of poetry.

Despite stones aimed at your head, guns pointed at your heart, or nooses tied with hopes of hanging you burning from one of them, it was just like Angelou said: you got the work done in a fantastically and indisputably admirable manner. And the fact that Mr. Obama is currently your homeland’s president demonstrates that none of your words or works, on or off the page, were produced in vain. This letter comes to say Thank You for the example provided, and to acknowledge that although I cannot confirm any definitive results at this point, I continue trying very hard to get the work done because you proved it is not only possible, but worth the aggravating labor required, worth the numbing anguish so often endured, and worth the miraculous joy that sometimes-just sometimes-follows in the end.

by Aberjhani
©June 2010

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5 Notable women of the past and present (special series part 3): Nina Simone

5 Notable women of the past and present (special series part 3): Nina Simone

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Musician-Artist Don Dean’s Eclectic Human Condition

Self Portrait artwork by Don Dean. (used by permssion of the artist)

Self Portrait artwork by Don Dean. (used by permssion of the artist)

Popular media references to the 1960s musical British Invasion headed by history-changing acts like the Beatles and Rolling Stones are far more common–at least on the U.S. side of the planet–than references to the corresponding African America’s Rhythm and Blues invasion of the United Kingdom that took place during the same period. That was when classic giants of the genre–think Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and the powerhouse duo Sam and Dave–took their homegrown artistry to Great Britain and received a kind of acclaim they had not yet received on their home turf.

Just as Europe embraced the early exporters of jazz during the 1920s and 1930s, the United Kingdom later welcomed the influence of rhythm and blues, and that influence remains evident in radio beats streaming out of the country across the airwaves and Internet. Born and raised in Watford, England, some twenty miles from downtown London, musician and fine artist Don Dean was among those natives who grooved along to R&B while later incorporating elements of it and successive musical movement into both his visual work and his acoustic arts.

Dean’s first declaration of his own brand of sonic soul came with the CD Live and Raw in 2006, followed by Family Portrait in 2007, and And So It Begins in 2008. With each release, the composer-musician fine tuned a gourmet blend of cultural styles, which would seem less remarkable if he had undergone years of formal training to accomplish such a professional feat. As it happens, Dean acted out of creative “necessity,” writing his own material and then teaching himself to play whatever instruments were required for a particular song, whether wind, string, keyboard or percussion in nature.

“My aim,” he pointed out, “is to create a soundscape fusing live vocals and solos with samples, electronics with acoustics, sometimes dreamy and sometimes edgy, mixing soul with rock and fusing Latin/Afro rhythms.”

The time-tested formula is one that seems to have reached a kind of apex with Eclectic, Dean’s fourth and most recent release. But music lovers can actually gauge for themselves how close he has gotten to his mark by visiting his profile page on Creative Thinkers International (please see links below). There, his music player showcases some thirteen tunes from various works, including “Free Part 2,” which features the silk-and-smoke soulful vocals of songman Randolph Matthews.

The new CD/MP3 as a whole marks the kind of performance that makes for a potential major breakthrough in one of toughest industries around, and that expands the cultural status of a musical free spirit.

The Eclectic Biography of a Budding Artist

Interestingly enough, for all the blended African and Latino flavors of his music, Dean himself is the product of a union between a German mother and English father. Growing up during an era of general racial and cultural intolerance, he recalls that, “I was bullied and actually spat on ‘cause my mum was German. But then guess what, when I went to Germany to visit my relatives there, I was spat on and bullied for being English.”

Life within his immediate family brought its problems as well. Difficulties between his parents eventually ended in divorce, ushering in a period of poverty and resentment following his father’s departure.

As often tends to be the case with creative souls, a major constant in Dean’s somewhat turbulent life was his double passion for art and music. Visual art was the first major manifestation of his “voice” and the means by which he communicated moods and messages even before starting grade school. His introduction to music came at the age of twelve when he joined the school band. “That’s where I learned to read and write music and played in the band until I left at sixteen, reaching the grand exalted rank of band captain and lead trumpet.”

Ironically, decades would pass before the seeds of artistry planted so early in his life would start to blossom in a major and beautiful way. The pull between creative passion on the one hand and cultural tension on the other likely had a lot to do with why he left home as a teenager and eventually traveled around countries in Europe and Africa, absorbing the different cultural vibes that give meaning and substance to life in the more expansive global village. The diversity of those travels has been reflected in both his life and his art, through audio samples from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., to newscasts of the Vietnam War and visual portraits that illustrate not just racial diversity but brightly painted environmental harmony.

Among the more unbelievable aspects of the musician-artist’s life is the fact that he has produced his incredible body of work and made it available to the public all without the expertise of a formal agent or manager. In addition, he has done so while coping with the challenges of caring for a disabled parent and simultaneously coping brilliantly with the constant pain generated by his own physical issues. As full, productive, and challenging as his life is, he recently made time to discuss his Eclectic creative journey:

Continues with Part 2: the Interview

by Aberjhani

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