A Dialogue: James Baldwin & Nikki Giovanni

Over the past few days I've been reading this hard-to-find transcript of a conversation that Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin had back in 1973. The dialogue is so layered with leaping brilliance and powerful observations that it feels like a crystalline oasis in the desert of media static. The conversation beautifully highlights the differences of perspective between Baldwin and Giovanni, in both their gendered and generational experience (at the time Giovanni was 28 and Baldwin 49). The conversation also happens to contain the best thinking I've read on the current racial problems in the United States, even though it took place over 40 years ago ... But what I want to post today is this clip from Baldwin talking about the value of writing. Over the past 2 years I've noticed a number of artists, including myself, questioning the value of creating art in a time that is so rife with "real world" suffering. My justification, and explanation, for carrying on has always revolved around what I consider the ontological value of good writing--and the fissures art creates in the consciousness when, even if just for a moment, we experience a more vital way of operating in the world, and through that moment then seek out more extreme and enlightened modes of existence. In the excerpt below, Baldwin says something similar, but is of course infinitely more eloquent than I am. I've been returning to it again and again ...

"The very first thing a writer has to face is that he cannot be told what to write. You know, nobody asked me to be a writer; I chose it. Well, since I’m a man I have to assume I chose it; perhaps in fact, I didn’t choose it. But in any case, the one thing you have to do is try to tell the truth. And what everyone overlooks is that in order to do it—when the book comes out it may hurt you—but in order for me to do it, it had to hurt me first. I can only tell you about yourself as much as I can face about myself. And this has happened to everybody who’s tried to live. You go through life for a long time thinking, No one has ever suffered the way I’ve suffered, my God, my God. And then you realize— You read something or you hear something, and you realize that your suffering does not isolate you; your suffering is your bridge. Many people have suffered before you, many people are suffering around you and always will, and all you can do is bring, hopefully, a little light into that suffering. Enough light so that the person who is suffering can begin to comprehend his suffering and begin to live with it and begin to change it, change the situation. We don’t change anything; all we can do is invest people with the morale to change it for themselves."