Last night I went to the San Francisco JCC to hear Danez Smith, a powerful youngish black poet, read from his new book, “Homie.” Sam Sax and Safia Elhillo read with him. The crowd was mostly young and very enthusiastic. Danez is a poet who comes from the loud and proud tradition, often found at poetry slams, less often in books. I enjoyed his reading, and the light, noisy atmosphere, so different from a standard poetry event. But after the reading, in the inevitable Q&A, a woman asked in relation to the publishing industry, still mostly owned and staffed by white people, “How do we dismantle the publishing industry so more diverse voices can be heard?” Neither Safia or Sam had much to say to that. To his credit, Danez said, “Well I don’t know that we want to dismantle it, just support the publication of diverse voices.” There was more to his response than that, but the question reminded me of a passage in James Baldwin’s amazing essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of My Mind.” In it, he is being driven to meet friends after a dinner with Elisha Muhammad. His driver (a follower of Muhammad), is talking about the wonderful day when the Negro (his word) population has its own, separate economy. Baldwin asks him, “On what, then, will the economy of this separate nation be based?” and goes on:
“I was thinking, in order for this to happen, your entire frame of reference will have to change, and you will be forced to surrender many things that you scarcely know you have. I didn’t feel that the things I had in mind, such as the pseudo-elegant heap of tin in which we were riding, had any very great value. But life would be very different without them, and I wondered if he had thought of this.
How can one, however, dream of power in any other terms than in the symbols of power?… People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”
I love this essay for so many reasons, but especially in gatherings like last night, where the whole complexity of capitalism and America can be dismissed casually, out of hand, without any acknowledgement of our enmeshed relationship to it, I long for a Baldwin to speak up. Here is the whole essay, from 1962. Worth a read: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1962/11/17/letter-from-a-region-in-my-mind