This book consists of two letters, one that is addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a longer one that he calls ‘A Letter from a Region in My Mind’. They concern themselves with the history and the state of race relations in the US in the 1960s, both from a very personal and a more general perspective.
I put this on my TBR when I read an article in my local newspaper earlier this year, in which they praised this essay immensely and called it unforgettable. And that it is. It is singularly impressive in its quotability, relevance, and brilliancy, while displaying some of the most honest and beautiful writing to boot. By using short anecdotes of his life, Baldwin explains what it means to be black in America, encourages others to examine their history in order to overcome it, and supports change and renewal in a way that allows a united country to emerge. Through it all, it feels like he is next to you, telling you about his life and arguing his point. Even if you don’t agree with him on everything, rhetorically, it is absolutely flawless.
There is one part that I want to highlight because it is just incredible. Almost at the end of the book, Baldwin describes a meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and some of his very devoted followers, long after he himself has become disillusioned with churches and religion. And while Baldwin promotes reconcililation, they, drunk on the self-righteousness of dogmatists everywhere, are all about the divide and about the war, in which there can be no middle ground. They are blind to everything but their own belief, and Baldwin, who clearly sees the implications of this rigid stance, has no way to reach them. It is a terrible, hopeless scene in which the despair one feels while being face-to-face with those who are convinced to be in possession of the one and absolute truth is palpable, and it shows exactly what a terrific writer Baldwin was. Afterwards, he thankfully analyses what should be done about this chasm in a rather positive manner, which lets it end on a more encouraging than futile note.
If you haven’t already read this, you should strongly consider it. It is a rather short book, but one that will give back a lot. Although decades have gone by, it is still as brilliant and relevant as it can be; it is haunting and hopeful, chilling and profound, astute and touching. It will break your heart into a thousand pieces only to put it back together again. And in the end, the words will linger long after you have closed the book.
CBR11 Bingo: Own Voices