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Letter from the Grave – A Homage to James Baldwin

Model (Young black female; Image courtesy of Wix)

James Baldwin's, "The Fire Next Time, " one of the inspirations for my new book, The African Piper of Harlem, is described in this post.

Writing Letters

Remember the lost art of writing letters. I guess millennials would refer to it as “proto-text-messaging.”

Letter writing is said to be therapeutic to both the writer and the receiver. Whether a robot mimics handwriting on mass-produced notes or thoughts are painstakingly etched in calligraphy on embossed paper, is a matter of preference for both parties in this verbal pas de deux.

How a writer crafts letters in cursive writing used to reveal personality traits to a graphologist. Moreover, letters from fallen warriors revealed the persons beneath tough exteriors in ways unmatched by 24/7 digital images. Could letters from the grave also heal intergenerational and cross-cultural bonds frayed by injustices? If so, how could one adequately express that dynamic? I was stumped.

The Fire Next Time

Then, one day, a clerk in a bookstore handed me James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” As soon as I read the book, I knew that James Baldwin was speaking to me from beyond the grave. When published in 1963, this book was viewed as a national reckoning. It is divided into two essays: “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down at the Cross – Letter from a Region of my Mind.” The first letter discussed the central role of race in America and the second letter discussed the role between race and religion. Those sub-themes also crop up in my fantasy, “The African Piper of Harlem.”

James Baldwin (1924 – 1987)

Who was James Baldwin. The eldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty in Harlem and was allegedly referred to by his grandfather as “the ugliest boy he had ever seen.”

His eloquence on race in America and other topics made him an important voice that still resonates from beyond the grave. Filmmaker, Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “I am not your Negro,” explored his thinking, in part, through notes he left to his agent about civil rights’ luminaries, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. He writes about wanting to use “their dreadful journey as a means of instructing the people whom they loved so much who betrayed them and for whom they gave their lives.”

Link to The African Piper of Harlem

Was the takeaway from The Fire Next Time, “achieve our country together” or “perish in the fire (‘apocalypse’)? I thought about that idea for a long time, because it is still relevant today.

While the main characters in book are recent African immigrants searching for the American dream they are also a part of Baldwin’s America, albeit with different experiences. So, I have used Grandpa Abram to give voice to some of his timeless commentary in my book.

To see how I weaved his thoughts into the story, click here.

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