Little Experiments of Liberation
By Danté Stewart
James Baldwin, 1963, Everett Collection Historical/Alamy
"Yesterday, I cried."
– Iyanla Vanzant
What’s the word when you feel like you have one but you actually don’t?
I have spent a lot of moments over the last few weeks counting deep breaths between doomscrolling and staring intently at an image of James Baldwin that hangs on my wall. Just a few days ago, I scrolled down the screen of my phone, as my family sat on the couch beside me. I read the NPR News Roundup. For only two minutes.
Tonight, I am sitting in my bed doomscrolling once again, listening to the same song, "Separated Hearts" by Lights & Motion, on repeat. I don’t know how many seconds or minutes or hours it has been at this point. Music is about the connection between our body and the parts of ourselves that seem hidden—let’s call that imagination—each movement of verse like a sort of carrying. It has the ability to hold a range of emotions some would consider profane or lacking mental clarity. Music, at least the kind of the gospel bent that I would listen to in church or of the diss track bent that I laugh to over social media, hold the possibility of love or an expression of hatred. And I guess that’s what I love so much about it: the freedom to feel with no added pressure to answer to anyone or anything.
This song has been guiding me through grief and anger and memories right now. And to be honest: it has helped me also quiet the noise that lingers in my mind as I wrestle with the voice of my own insecurity. This is a moment of waiting. I cannot rush toward the silence and the feelings of warmness that tell me things are better.
The song has no lyrics but it does—in a strange way—follow a tune that feels like dancing. Not the type of two-step or jig or griddy that is accompanied by shoulders moving up and down. This song is the type of dancing that is like a longing to be held amidst the unshakable power anxiety has over me but also my ability to move in front of the mirror of my garage gym, smiling. It begins mellow, then builds into a layered, imbalanced sound that feels like chords giving and taking from one another, all as movement toward a soft ending that makes me motion my arms across myself and sway slowly side-to-side. It is probably best described as what Hanif Abdurraqib calls the "sad banger"—a song that gestures the body and mind to step along the rhythm of life’s complexity.
This song is still playing. I am still sad. And sometimes a song with no words feels better than words conjured out of escape and performative love.
There were moments as children where we would wait at the altar of prayer. As our small knees pressed the red carpet of our white-stained brick church, our heads would be motioned in the downward position, and beckoned to call the name: Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. As the hum would travel from our stomachs to our mouths and then in syllables and sounds we could not understand, our tongues would dance under hot, bright chandeliers. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.
I have been thinking a lot about those moments and these moments right now.
I have been thinking about praying and waiting and watching for something deeper even if I haven’t had the words nor the phrases nor the language that could hold me together. What is the word that will keep us grounded in times where productivity seems more necessary than pausing? There isn’t one–at least not in the traditional sense.
Such a question presupposes either our ability or our willingness to use voice and language to ground us in these moments. We are collectively in a time of deep hunger for something like music: a soft, persistent joy that sounds like a continual reminder, amid the news, that everything will be okay. I believe it will. But I don’t know if I’ve been truly convinced that the melody our worlds make is a tune that can hold the question Michael Jackson wondered in "Earth Song":what about us? Being drawn into the story-line, I counted how many times this question was asked. It is twenty-four times, echoed as a human demand and refusal to be erased. I think to myself, “how many times must we be asked to see one another and stop doing things that hurt?”
This question, woven within the forceful yells of Michael’s voice and the response of the unified choir that speaks back to him, captures the pressure to feel that we must be the voice that finally makes things right again. As a theologian and essayist, I feel that urgency.
If I can make a confession: I spend countless hours checking my engagement on social media, wondering if the wall I feel in my imagination is a forever judgment on my inability to think and to speak. I sit in the silence of my darkened office, reading a book here and then a book there, trying to find the right way to speak about what I have seen. Is this pressure unnecessary? I don’t know, but I do know that to feel and to stay tapped into our humanity and the humanity of others is to feel the need to at least say or do something. Yet, I don’t think, I or we, often think about the cost.
In the late summer of 1984, essayist and novelist James Baldwin was hospitalized for what doctors deemed to be "exhaustion." In the years before, he spent time in Atlanta, Georgia, researching and writing about the child murders which would become the subject of the long-form essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen. In 1979, he published his towering novel, a momentous saga of love and failure and gospels and rage, Just Above My Head. In that same year, he traveled up and down the coast of California teaching classes and lecturing on his famous sermon against assimilating the black mind and black language against white supremacist logics. He wrote a scathing critique of the religious right and their use of religion as a means of control rather than an instrument of liberation. It was an exciting time, somewhat of an illusion of super human creativity and strength. For a young boy from Harlem to become arguably one of the most well-known black men with a pen, it was a much better fate than some of the other young black boys that he knew from his neighborhood.
He was active and he was moving, and he was doing the work, serious work. But now, as I sit in my bed, taking up my worn-down copy of his collected essays and opening to the section called "Chronology," I read these words: "Goes into seclusion after learning of Beauford Delaney’s death in Paris on March 26, 1979." I pause when I read this line. He goes into seclusion after hearing of this death. The next line in the chronology reads: "Teaches class at University of California, Berkeley, in spring, and speaks at Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego campuses." Then it hits me: he is working in the wake of death and I don’t even know if he realizes what it costs him.
Some people go into seclusion to get away from the pressures of this world, either to flee from the violence or to overcome the deafening loudness of the echo chambers and voices. Others go into seclusion out of fear, hoping that if they can wait out the storm long enough, their struggle to actually face the death and dying around us could be forgotten as quickly as the first shot or the first bomb or the first civilian death or the grown man who cries out "Mama!" before his oxygen cuts off and then his heart stops and his body is as still as the burning sun above him.
Then there are others, like me, who go into seclusion as a way of coping with trauma or anxiety. I guess trauma makes finding a space of safety more necessary than being drawn to the public. As much as our hearts break, our bodies and our souls feel. And sometimes, trauma gets the best of us and our productivity, a pressure I am feeling at this very moment. A pressure to create and show up in the world being believed to be a better way to move forward than to remain emotionally stagnant.
What is the word when you feel like you have one but you actually don’t?
I speak a lot in public about liberation. In my book, Shoutin’ In The Fire: An American Epistle, the word liberation appears thirty-seven times. The dedication reads: "For Jasamine, Asa, Ava, and all who dream of love and liberation." This is addressed to my wife, my son, and my daughter. My desk is full of books that speak that same language back to me. Over my shoulder there are four images that watch, and in my mind’s imagination, pray over me. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. James Cone. Katie Cannon. As my eyes travel from the books that weigh down my desk to my coffee, and then to the reflections of those four images in the black of my computer screen, I remind myself: love is the beginning of liberation and liberation is the embodiment of love.
I have to force myself to believe that sentence. I have also had to slow down the pace at which I’ve been living. "You have to grieve," a friend told me as she spoke about a recent loss we both experienced. This was not the type of loss and absence that emerges after a death. It was also the type of loss felt as a song shifts. It was the loss of what was familiar, a sort of disillusionment and distance between what was before and what is now. She said to me that I must give myself room to feel what it means to lose a friend, two aunts, and a grandfather in the space of four months. And then: I have to give myself room to grieve what also died when I made the decision to change and to grow. The losses were different. But the trauma? All felt the same.
Some find facing loss and fear distasteful. Some find it energizing and exciting. I find both to be true at the same time and that the experience of anxiety and grief chooses which word will be ours in any given moment. "You have to grieve," my friend said, "the person you are now and the person other people remember."
I think my profound love for James Baldwin exists partly because he had the courage to re-invent himself when others—in the church—because of his sexuality, and in society—because of his blackness—refused to allow him to hold the full range of human complexity. I never thought about the word liberation until I read him and I don’t think he used that word much in his writing. Baldwin always spoke about the new. The New world. The New Jerusalem. Something familiar but unfamiliar. Something that feels like dancing but also like living. Something that feels like a repeated song over and over with no lyrics but a cathartic release of joy and pain together, nonetheless.
Liberation is as much about self-love and self reinvention as it is about power. It is an act of finding your way and yourself as you journey to the past to see what lingers right now. The good. The bad. The messy. The sacred.
As a child, I remember my mother, every weekday, in the early hours of the morning walking silently in our small, white house, to each of our rooms, moving her lips in a silent whisper. She was praying. She knew the lay of the South Carolina land and how much grief it holds. Soil where I’m from makes it hard to plant crops. My father spent countless hours in the cool, brisk chill mornings planting seeds in the brown dirt in Swansea, South Carolina. Nothing ever grew out of it.
I asked my father if he had any regrets over the land often refusing his gift. "No," he told me over the phone, "you can’t live life with regrets." When he said that, I knew that my mother never regretted praying over us. And then I understood a little more about James Baldwin as I read the "Chronology" and why his seclusion and exhaustion were sandwiched in between The Devil Finds Work and "begins teaching in the Afro-American studies department of University of Massachusetts, Amherst" and his expanded version of The Evidence of Things Not Seen. It is not that our actions will always yield the desired results. Sometimes we fail and sometimes the earth fails us. But the very act of throwing the seed means that we care enough about ourselves and those around us to give nourishment and keep going.
I am far removed from those early morning rooms and the warm dirt, but I imagine that being liberated is about staying tapped into our humanity, a willingness to be involved in something deeper, more enormous, as Baldwin wrote, something that reminds us again and again that even if words fail, our presence doesn’t. It is difficult to see what we are forced to see and to endure what we are forced to endure.
History, as Baldwin affirmed, is a nightmare and we are living continually in dark days. But we also hold so much more. "If you are in a situation where you are always resisting or resenting," he tells Maya Angelou on a segment of "Assignment America," as he sits quietly in front of her, his brown, white, and yellow scarf resting at the opening of his gold shirt. "You can’t write a book, you can’t write a sentence." "No," she says. I too believe that. Sometimes we need to realize that we are exhausted and stillness is key in allowing ourselves to feel. But being still is no excuse for passivity. It is about creating space to say and be the right things when the moment comes for us to show up in the world again.
This truth and image crawled into my mind when I needed it the most. The image is of James Baldwin dancing with Doris Jean Castle of The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the early 1960s. Castle was an active organizer on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in CORE's New Orleans chapter. Both Baldwin and Castle were veterans of the struggle during this moment. Baldwin chose books and his voice. Castle chose the picket and the streets. The year the image was taken was 1963. It was the same year Castle protested the segregated New Orleans City Hall cafeteria. It was the same year that Baldwin released his passionate plea for life, liberation, and love in The Fire Next Time. Castle was one of three plaintiffs that successfully sued the city of New Orleans to desegregate the facility. Baldwin, who was no stranger to CORE, had made a stop to speak on the behalf of its benefit. And in this moment: they dance.
When you are committed to the work, you have to carve out space to move a little and engage in little experiments of joy.
In the photo, the force and gracefulness of Castle’s stretched out arms is felt as powerful as the covering of a lover’s hug. Baldwin’s arms are in the position of a "T." He smiles. His head is cocked to side as he beholds the ordinary moment of black aliveness. The two dancers are together. He has no books. There are no microphones asking him about the "race problem." Neither the wine-stained hallways in Harlem he knew so viscerally, nor the white American inhumanity he experienced so violently, are in this image. Castle is not locked away and lonely in a Mississippi penitentiary. She is not shouting in that sometimes-rage-and-sometimes-helpless plea, trying to prove to the defenders of the South that neither the South nor the world belongs to them.
The floor holds their feet. It is just he, Castle, and two others who are present in their world but absent to this experience. This black world is hidden but felt. It is theirs.
That type of movement has been living salve for me these past two years. So many of the things I have read of James Baldwin and have tried to imitate in my own writing—I mean those things that others consider to be about "saving" America—matter a little less. At times, the misery of this place seems both too stifling and too overwhelming to be given everything my body has to offer. So, like Baldwin, I reach deep down inside to remind myself that joy and movement are not only accessible, they are necessary.
There are parts of our lives that should remain hidden. There are also parts of our lives that should be given to one another as little experiments in liberation. Time is sometimes suspended and parallel universes in our bodies collide. Unincumbered love is an impossibility. We carry both the burden and the gift of our humanity. Doomscrolling and the shiny dance floor we make of the earth are both ours. Fast-paced heart rates and slowed moments of embrace are both ours. It is best summed up in this line: grieve as you live, live as you grieve, and every moment in between don’t forget to move a little.
Sometimes there is no word. Sometimes there is no argument. Sometimes there is no clear way forward but this present moment we find ourselves in: "to encounter oneself," Baldwin writes,"is to encounter the other: and this is love." And if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.