SOMETHING ELSE WAS HAPPENING in the background—I had met Barack Obama. I was still holding on to my general admiration of the man, but I had also written several blog posts criticizing him, for his insistence on “color-blind policy” and for his tendency to hector black people on their alleged shortcomings. Obama would regularly invite journalists who disagreed with him to the White House to spar. From time to time, I found myself among the summoned—usually after I’d written something critical. In the first of these, I was intimidated and left thinking I’d failed to do my job. The second time I was responding to the embarrassment of the first. I thought of my days back in Baltimore, back on the block, insisting that “I ain’t no punk.” Before I left for D.C. for that second trip to the White House, Kenyatta looked at me and said, “What would Baldwin do?” Hmmm. I suspect something more elegant than what I did. I arrived to the meeting late. I was wearing jeans. I’d gotten rained on along the way. I argued, at length, with the president about health care and vulnerable people in Mississippi. I wasn’t lying, but the debate was also performative. I was trying to prove to myself that I would not be cowed or seduced by power. It was ridiculous. But it was also an exchange with the first black president in the history of the most powerful nation in the world.
I walked from the White House to Union Station to take the train home. I called my editor, Chris Jackson. I talked about the meeting—“Yo you shoulda seen it, Chris. I was the only other nigga in the room and fools was looking at us like, ‘These niggers are fighting!!!!’ ” But I found myself again talking about Baldwin and the beauty of what he’d done in The Fire Next Time. I talked about how I’d read the book in one sitting and the challenge I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion, meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years. I told him we were in an extraordinary moment—the era of a black president and Black Lives Matter—much like Baldwin had written amid the fight for desegregation. Here he offered this admonition—“The road is littered with knockoffs of The Fire Next Time.” But he still encouraged me to try.
To invoke the name James Baldwin, these days, is to invoke the name of both a prophet and a God. More than his actual work, Baldwin, himself, has been beatified. That is why young writers descend on his long-abandoned house, like pilgrims into the Holy Land. That is why they have founded an entire genre of essay to document the hajj. The beatification is understandable. Baldwin owes his prominence as much to his image as to his words. And we don’t simply have the beauty of his words, we have the force of his presence. I am not immune—Baldwin the Legend was the ancestor Kenyatta sought to summon up when she asked, “What would Baldwin do?”
But all the magic I wanted was on the page. And when I looked closely, when I began to study, I did not even see magic, so much as a machinery so elegant, so wondrous, so imaginative as to seem supernatural. I am talking to young writers now. Your heroes are not mystics nor sorcerers but humans practiced at the work of typing and revising, and often agonized by it. I know this because I have chased before. I chased the work of Nas. I chased the work of E. L. Doctorow. I chased the work of Black Thought. From Dust Tracks on a Road to Jonah’s Gourd Vine, I chased the work of Zora Neale Hurston. From “The Colonel” to “The Museum of Stones,” I chased the work of Carolyn Forché. I chased them all, in the hope that somewhere in the underlined sentences, in the dog-eared pages, in the conversations with other writers, who too were chasing, I would find my own work, and that work would fill someone out there with the same magic, which is not magic, that had filled me that day, sitting in Founders Library, in awe of James Baldwin.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy, 2017.