The towering James Baldwin would have turned 94 two days ago, had he not passed away in 1987. It was lovely to see his birthday celebrated in various ways online this week, though perhaps no tribute was quite as moving as the one that came from Barry Jenkins: the Moonlight director marked the occasion with the debut of the first trailer for If Beale Street Could Talk, his upcoming film adaptation of Baldwin’s eponymous novel.
That we’re all still talking about Baldwin and his work more than thirty years after his death is a real testament to the power and importance of his writing. In addition, his mastery of so many formats — the novel, the essay, the lecture, the media appearance, and so on — continues to be mind-boggling. Moreover, it’s remarkable how his work has enjoyed broad appeal while also speaking so emphatically to people of color and queer people, as well as those on the left, writers, and others.
Baldwin certainly speaks to me as a writer and a person on the left, but also as a member of another community: the fellowship of those who have left the ministry. For a long time, I worked as a chaplain and professor of Buddhist practical theology. A few years ago, though, I came to the conclusion that I needed to leave both the ministry and Buddhism altogether — and it wouldn’t be too much to say that Baldwin’s writing about his own trials and tribulations in the realm of religious life helped me through my decision.
Growing up, Baldwin had been expected to follow in his step-father’s footsteps and become a Pentecostal preacher. For a time he served as a junior minister and was (unsurprisingly) quite good at sermonizing. But he also struggled with doubt. Details of his experience in the church find their way into many of his works, but perhaps the one that provides the clearest picture of this period is The Devil Finds Work (Dial Press, 1976).
Described by critic and curator Ashley Clark as a “brilliant book-length…essay, which blends a candid autobiographical articulation of his cinephilia with a frank critique of the fraught intersection between Hollywood’s industrial practices and its limiting representational approaches,” The Devil Finds Work is probably most remembered for its focus on film. (By way of illustration, much of the material about American cinema in Raoul Peck’s 2016 Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro is drawn from its pages.) For me, though, its autobiographical material had life-altering effects.
I first read The Devil Finds Work in 2014. At the time, I was feeling exhausted, and I couldn’t figure out why. I’d long since vacated an unusually demanding university job, which had seemed like the logical culprit behind my weariness. I had fully transitioned into working independently — writing articles, coediting a book, speaking at events, producing a podcast, getting my foot in the door at other schools — and I was doing it all at a pace that I was more or less able to set for myself. But I felt no less worn-down. I wasn’t overworked and I wasn’t burned out, but I was enervated nonetheless.
The problem was this: I was done with Buddhism (or Buddhism was done with me). What’s more, we’d been done with each other for quite a while. However, there I was, still toiling away at it as if nothing were wrong. But the dissonance had finally become too much, and the seams were now showing.
I had initially come to Buddhism as a scared nineteen-year-old; I needed help addressing fears about impermanence and death, and it offered some much-needed assistance. While Buddhist study and practice did help me get a grip, existentially-speaking, it also stopped being helpful at a certain point.
Nevertheless, I stayed with it, and for silly reasons. One was a sense of loyalty — a servile appreciation for what aid Buddhism had provided. Another was the masochistic belief that if things didn’t seem to be working it was because I just wasn’t practicing hard enough. So I also overcompensated: more retreats, more degrees, more jobs, more everything.
For a long time, though, I couldn’t see any of this. My partner Steph certainly could, but, in her gentle and patient way, she let me work most of it out on my own. Her active listening was vital, though, in terms of allowing me to see what I’d become: in her paraphrasing and questions, she reflected me back to myself with crystal clarity.
It was a rare piece of advice, though, that caused a breakthrough. Recognizing that it might be good for me to unplug from Buddhist/professional activities for at least part of the day, Steph suggested: “Maybe try reading something for pleasure?”
Funnily enough, I had recently come across Noah Berlatsky’s Atlantic piece about The Devil Finds Work. As a sometimes cinéaste, my interest had been piqued by two major declarations made by Berlatsky: that Baldwin was “the greatest film critic ever,” and his book “one of the most powerful examples ever of how writing about art can, itself, be art.” Since it was literally at the top of my reading list, and really the only title that had nothing to do with Buddhism, I decided to start there.
What I didn’t expect in reading The Devil Finds Work was that it would speak so precisely to where I was at that moment: Baldwin ends Part One of the book reflecting on his own break with the church. He paints an affecting portrait of himself as a confused teenager, struggling mightily with how to move forward in his life:
I knew that I could not stay in the pulpit. I could not make my peace with that particular lie — a lie, in any case, for me. I did not want to become Baby-Face Martin — I could see that coming, and, indeed, it demanded no spectacular perception, since I found myself surrounded by what I was certain to become. But neither did I know how to leave — to jump: it could not be explained to my brothers and sisters, or my mother, and my father had begun his descent into the valley (32).
It all culminates with a challenge from his best friend Emile Capouya, who would himself go on to become a writer and publisher of note. Baldwin describes Capouya as “one of the most honest and honorable people I have ever known” (32), and describes his provocation thus:
Even if what I was preaching was gospel, I had no right to preach it if I no longer believed it. To stay in the church merely because I was afraid of leaving it was unutterably far beneath me, and too despicable a cowardice for him to support in any friend of his. Therefore, on the coming Sunday, he would buy two tickets to a Broadway matinee and meet me on the steps of the 42nd Street Library, at two o’clock in the afternoon. He knew that I spent all day Sunday in church — the point, precisely, of the challenge. If I were not on the steps of the library (in the bookshelves of which so much of my trouble had begun!) then he would be ashamed of me and never speak to me again, and I would be ashamed of myself (33).
Happily, the story ends with Baldwin finding the grit to “tip-toe” out of his church and meet Capouya at the 42nd Street Library (34). The rest is literary history.
Reading about this “quite extraordinary confrontation between two adolescents” moved me to tears. I could relate completely to Baldwin: I was lying to myself in much the same way that he had been lying to himself. Indeed, the only things still holding me to Buddhism had nothing to do with Buddhism per se, but rather with my not knowing how to be honest with myself and others. Like Baldwin, I had “lost a lot of respect for myself”: I wasn’t that scared nineteen-year-old anymore, and I needed to come to terms with that (33).
Although I’d been primed by my conversations with Steph, everything became clear as I read those sentences in The Devil Finds Work. And I knew I too had to get off the path I was on, or else I would be ashamed of myself. The rest is personal history.
Mine is an individual experience of Baldwin, to be sure. At the same time, though, it’s probably not totally unique: his singular ability cut through the lies we can and do tell ourselves is no doubt a big part of his continued significance. “You have to have the [guts] to protest the slogan, no matter how noble it may sound,” he told the New York Times in 1979. “It always hides something else; the writer should try to expose what it hides.”
Baldwin’s uncompromising investigations of both himself and the world remain vital inspirations today, and their influence is not likely to wane any time soon. Speaking personally — but also for quite a few others indirectly, I’m sure — I don’t know where I’d be without his work.
Happy Birthday, James. And thank you.