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Letter to James Baldwin

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

I've often dreamt of a time sitting with you conversing about what has become of society, art, and the written word. What would I have to tell you then of my time, other than we're still marching and protesting issues now seen sooner over social media? Social media, yes, is a new concept for you. These collections of websites and applications allowing us to create, share content, and network socially; has turned into the ability to overshare every aspect of one's life. A gift and a curse for which we have yet (if we ever) heeded its boundaries, but I digress. This conversation in is not an easy one to have with you because there are still moments I am unsure about my abilities and worth to the writing world. Yes, even in this dream world.

However, you listen and assure me every writer has had and still has those moments. How are you moving the culture forward? You ask with a certainty of already knowing the answer. As a writer, nothing, and I am ashamed. As a Black person, I buy Black often and never ask for a discount. I watch Black movies on opening weekends. I buy books from black authors; learn about our history and the art of literature, and receive inspiration. This is what I do, but is it enough? A question I ask myself aloud while I watch you gently tap the ashes of your cigarette into the black plastic ashtray.

"One cannot look to others for answers amid difficult questions." I want to say something. My lips part, but no words. "Perhaps, the real question is, what are you satisfied in doing, and should you, ever, be satisfied?" With this, you leave me sitting at your table to think. My mind races with the question. Am I satisfied with anything? What does that look like?

Before now, everything around us was that of a void--colorless and soundless, like a blank canvas. The table is small and round, not fit for more than dinner for two. The kitchen windows are opened outward like arms ready to receive love, filling the room with sunlight heating the chilly terra cotta tiled floor. The wind gently sweeps across my toes as I take in the smell of coffee, freshly brewed from your French Press, and flowers from your garden. There is, what I think, a constant drip from the faucet. Consistent, as if keeping time. I feel seen in this warm light.

I carefully peek into each room, admiring the neatness of your bedroom and the fullness of your wardrobe. I pass pictures of you hanging on the wall with family and friends leading to your living room, a social area for your loving guests entertained by your wit, and dazzled by your smile, small, but comforting. I make my way up the stairs, each step as chilly as the last. The sun is not as present here. The cold black steel railing leads me to a typewriter; a melodious song, and my heart dances.

Then, in the hallway, a sense of fear grips me, and a question attacks me; Who am I to be here, even in a dream? A successful writer, I am not. I am far from it. I'm just now coming to terms with calling myself a writer. For many years I wouldn't and sometimes refused. Not because I didn't want to be amongst the greats or my favorite by mere title. Whatever rights of passage one had to endure to become a writer, I had not journeyed. At least in thought. My baggy white collar shirt feels tight around my neck. Count Basie is crooning over a record player, so it is my hope you have not heard me talking to myself and shuffling back and forth quietly as I can. Hoping her wails and your tapping have your full attention.

I take a deep breath and slowly peek in the doorway. I see you through a haze of smoke--reading, thinking, adjusting words on a paper. The balcony doors are not fully open, but enough for sunlight and a breeze to dance around the room. Your table is covered in bundles of papers. Some papers, I presume, are finished, and others are drafts waiting their turn for the typewriter. A stack of envelopes sits closest to the door, stamped and ready to ship to your editor, family, and friends across the waters. The rustic oversized wooden table is long and unpolished but looks smooth to the touch, and the one I would like most to sit at, but I am afraid.

I would think, even in a dream, I would've been less timid to enter this room with you, but no. You do not know my name; no one does. I see you in your prime in Paris, focused on the magic of your words that will later conjure emotions in all who read or hear them. Then there's me, standing outside of your room, feeling the scratchiness of my jeans from rubbing my hands against them incessantly out of fear, the meat of my knee poking through the distressed opening of my pant leg, finally, accepting the title of (unaccomplished) Writer in my early thirties.

Sunlight wraps the room casting light over books, papers, and objects (probably gifts) of meaning from people with greater importance to you. A breath escapes. My heart slowly steadies. This feeling crept inside me like a thief snatching all excitement and shook it vehemently until it turned into anxiousness. The cigarette in one hand lowered just above the ashtray with two small taps. I watch the ashes descend and gather with extinguished buds from earlier; typed papers in the other hand coupled with a pencil. You slowly bring the cigarette to the left of your mouth, parting your lips just enough to press against the yellow filter.

As you inhale, I hear the crackling of your cigarette; the exhale torpedoes the smoke towards the door. I cough, but you don't look up. "What do you want." A statement rather than a question posed in between another puff. I bring myself to the middle of the door, still unsure of what I may say, just hoping you would at least give me a quick gaze--a nod of my being here in this room. Instead, your attention stays on your work.

The steady rise of nerves and the coolness under my feet makes my hands clammy. I press them against my jeans to dry and to gather my words. I take a deep breath, "My name is T--"before I finish, you interject, "You must write with the vigor of honesty and vulnerability, even when you don't feel like it. Time will not wait. And what a shame it would be for your gift to die with you without it being shared throughout the vastness of this earth, simply because you did not dare to put in the work." Not even a glance, yet I feel seen more than I ever have. As if you saw the day my muse will stand laughing at me at their mercy as I plead and beg for their return. You sensed my fear without even looking at me.

In one motion, I watch you smash your cigarette and gaze at the last of the smoke rising from the ashtray. You pull another from your pouch to light. With one slow pull from the fresh filter, you look up. Exhaling with your arms folded, you glare at me with a slight smirk and warn me, "Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it will surely be yours."

Being a writer has always been within me. Getting to a concluded project has always been a struggle. Never wanting it to end, I start another to fill the possible void. It also gave me an excuse not to share my work with anyone and drown in my perceived imperfection. The pity is suffocating, the characters' voices become louder, and the ideas continuously swirl like a tornado with each moment I keep it under lock and key.

No matter what anyone thinks when it comes to my writing--including me, pales in comparison to the whisper of resiliency that snaps me awake and from my sorrow; finish, dammit. Then let go. I wake up gasping for air with beads of sweat covering my forehead and running down my chest. I still hear the words echoing as I take deep breaths to gather myself. "Finish, then let it go," I repeat with a heavy sigh. "I got it. I got it."

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