“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”
By Maria Popova
The history of the world is the history of telling others who and what we are — from tribal markings to national flags to family crests to pronoun-specifying email signatures. Every war that has ever been fought, political or personal, has been staked on these battlegrounds of identity and belonging. Every work of art that has ever been made has turned the battleground into a garden, where these same seeds of selfhood have come abloom in the artist’s being to touch with the pollen of some grander beauty and some larger truth other beings, clarifying and fortifying their own identity, their own presence, their own belonging in history. “An artist,” James Baldwin told the interviewer in his historic 1963 LIFE profile, “is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”
Who and what we are is, of course, a complex mosaic with myriad tesserae, drawn from our genetic and cultural inheritance, shaped by the biological ancestors chance has dealt us and shaped equally by the spiritual ancestors we have chosen for ourselves, all of our ancestors themselves shaped by myriad confluences of chance and choice. The mosaic rests atop the most elemental stratum of our nature, for as Rachel Carson observed, “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
Musician and conceptual poet Meshell Ndegeocello reanimates Baldwin’s words from that altogether vivifying 1963 interview to weave around them a lush lyric meditation on the roots and realities of personhood in an enchanting prose-poem, part of her multimedia experience Chapter and Verse — a project she envisioned as “a twenty-first-century ritual toolkit for justice, a call for revolution, a gift during turbulent times,” inspired by Baldwin’s prophetic 1963 book The Fire Next Time, which occasioned the LIFE tribute.
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.
Complement this small fragment of Ndegeocello’s majestic Chapter and Verse with Anne Lamott’s lovely letter to children about books as an antidote to isolation and Baldwin’s great friend, champion, and fellow genius Gwendolyn Brooks’s forgotten 1969 poem about the power of books, then revisit Baldwin’s own account of how he read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and some of his most poignant, least known words of wisdom set to music by Ndegeocello’s friends and frequent collaborators Morley and Chris Bruce.