James Baldwin and Writing Through Disaster

Jose Vilson Jose

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.