James Baldwin and Writing Through Disaster

Jose VilsonJose10 Comments

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

On Tuesday, at 7:30am, right before class, I found out my father passed away from my brother. The opaque skies of the early morning didn’t let up all day. My students acted as they usually do: adolescent, chatty, enlightened, irresponsible. My energy, however, didn’t betray me except in the few times they decided to quit on themselves. My tolerance level for their defeatist retorts was next to nil. My reaction to adults in our teacher team meeting didn’t help things.

The few people who knew about my situation kept their distance, but those who didn’t quickly found out through my other colleagues. I felt like I got no break from people.

Under the advisement of a few family members and friends, I took the day off on Wednesday, unplugging from the everyday routines to recalibrate my energies, just to understand why I reacted to my father’s passing as I did. I was planning some time away from the Internet to finish the edits in my book, hoping to deliver the best book possible to everyone. This made the urgency of my writing that much greater.

Right before I headed out the door on Wednesday, I started reading Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. This resonates with me now:

” … So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next – one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.”

I shouldn’t have cared that my father passed. I only saw him once a year on average, four times in the last seven years. I shut him out of my son’s life for not responding to my son’s initial fetal scan pictures. Even though I made peace with the idea that he would never transform into the loving, caring grandfather I had hoped for, I didn’t want to spark any real conversation with him. He didn’t raise me, and my whole idea of fatherhood came from his (and my stepfather’s) lack thereof.

Teaching prepared me for child-rearing in a way technocrats and people who diss soft skills dare not understand.

When I got home, I changed the channel to ESPN to find out that Nelson Mandela, a man who meant so many of us fighting for social justice, had passed away as well. My fingers had a reason to finish this book, my own long journey home.

Comments 10

  1. When I read your work it reminds me of the greats like Baldwin who helped me to connect with my true self in ways that were foreign to me as a teen. This posting was much more than that. It was you sharing your soul…your truth…well beyond your normal truth.

    My only complaint is that it ended.

    Thank you
    Peace & Blessings

  2. I am sorry about your father’ s death. But he was your absent father to be honored. That’s what I tell my daughter about her absent father because that is what I was told about my absent father. The greatest lesson I have learned from my and my daughter’s absent fathers is for me to be présent for her. God bless you and don’t shed a tear but give your child à kiss and hug. And thank God for being the loving father and teacher that you are.

  3. Jose,
    Thank you for being the most open man I have ever known. You share more in some blog posts (this one included) than many men share in a year. In a life. It is hard when our experience and society’s expectations don’t resonate. I lost my uncle recently. He also was absent from my life. We were closest when I had taken steps towards a less meaningful, less responsible, less productive life. When I changed course and turned to teaching, my wife, and my family he stopped connecting with me. He never met my son. My daughter only once.
    He is gone. I am glad I knew him. There are childhood memories I have of him but, nothing from my life as a fully formed man. I guess we both lost out on that relationship. Somehow, I think he lost more than I did. I suspect you understand.

    Keep swinging for the fence.

  4. My condolences. Sometimes our parents leave us a legacy of love and understanding. It’s not always about material things. But for your students who may not have such a role model, I am sure you are filling that void. Your son may be too young to realize how you, like Mandela, also are a great influence. But you get to touch the lives of a new generation each day and every year. Regardless of your history with your dad, you did need a day to unplug because it is still an ending….

    I hope you and your family have a very happy holiday.

  5. My best to you as you go through this process, one that is so definitively human and yet so deeply personal and individual. I wish you peace throughout…

  6. Jose

    I, too, lost my father – the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Unlike your story, most of my sadness comes from the grandfather he was to my children. The idea that my four-year-old may not remember him well is sad beyond belief.

    Best wishes to you and for completion of your book. Can’t wait to read it.

  7. That was beautiful. Thank you.
    I too am somewhat estranged my father (and step father). I too take cues on how not to parent from them. But they were both good teachers, so I strive to balance being a good teacher and a good parent. It’s hard to imagine someone being good at one and not the other, but it does happen.
    Sorry for the loss.
    Beautiful writing.

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