The news from France came via NPR on Tuesday morning, just as I was parking my car near Wilson High School. James Baldwin had died in St. Paul de Vence the night before.
I tucked that away because I was late for my meeting with Dr. Mary White, who directs the Scholars in the Schools program for the Board of Education, and two Wilson teachers, Valerie Wheeler and Francine Owens. I was on my way to volunteer some help in a public high school classroom. It's the kind of thing I think all fortunate blacks should find time to do, and I have no patience with those who can thrive while observing with equanimity the enormous needs of inner-city people. In my mind, I was acting from a mature black male's value system that I had constructed out of my vision, on my own. Thoughts about Baldwin would have to wait.
A half-hour later, I stood in Francine Owens' journalism class under a yellow-and-red banner that proclaimed, "Writing Is Empowerment." I told the students that writing was one of the principal keys to their personal survival and to the growth and development of their people in America. I had already told them that we blacks now alive are riding on the shoulders of the giants who struggled to get us where we are. Suddenly the thoughts of Baldwin would not stay tucked away. They came flooding through me, unbidden and uncontrolled.
Mainly what came flashing back was a book and a time. The book was "Notes of a Native Son," and the time was three decades ago, when I was an unformed young man in New York with a fresh law degree. I knew I was black -- I gave money to the NAACP -- but the urban poor were no particular concern of mine. My career was my particular concern.
But one day I picked up that volume of Baldwin's essays and began to read on the long subway ride from my office in midtown Manhattan to my home in Brooklyn. Gradually, the immediacy of the rush-hour crowd and the noisy clatter of the train gave way in my consciousness to the crackle of Baldwin's sentences and the explosions of his insights. The man's prose pummeled the softness of my racial consciousness. Here is a sample:
"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
One of those evenings, while I was walking toward home along Kingston Avenue, still holding the slender paperback volume, a tiny brown girl in worn clothing and scuffed shoes came flying around the corner of St. John's Place on her way to one of the old stores on the battered neighborhood shopping street.
"Three pounds of rice in a red-and-white box," she chirped over and over again. I watched as she passed briefly through the cone of light that spilled out of the shop door and then disappeared inside. I remember thinking that Baldwin was telling me that the poor little black child had as much human weight as any person on Earth and that somebody had to care enough to give her space to grow.
In the Wilson classroom, I remembered another thing about Baldwin. I have been known to brag that I was prescient enough to write in 1959 in my first published piece that despite all the struggle and progress in the South, the North had problems that, if left unattended, would someday explode. As I talked on with Francine Owens' students, I realized that just as I had been able to see that child clearly with the new consciousness that Baldwin's words had provided, I had also seen the running sores of the cities with his help. I remembered, too, the deep joys that writing had given me -- the pleasure in the words and in the anticipation of their teaching. The outlines of a mature black man were just then beginning to emerge.
A full circle was achieved earlier in this decade when Baldwin wrote enthusiastic words about my autobiography. His enthusiasm was based, in my view, largely on his judgment that, despite the great differences in our backgrounds, he saw in those pages a spirit of blackness similar to his own. Then, three years ago, we shared a platform at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I told him how he had ignited both my spirit of blackness and my latent desire to be a writer. He deflected the emotion accompanying the gratitude with a smile and the quiet sentence, "You are surely a writer now."
So I wasn't just about my own business when I was trying to help enrich the education of those Wilson students. And when I return time and again to try to help those students capture the romance and the power of the word, I will be riding the shoulders of a giant.
Such is the power of words. And such is the power of Jimmy Baldwin.
The writer is Robinson professor of history at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.