Learn Your Letters
Oh, the things that stirred in that boy. There was North Joe Wheeler Street and Nora Davis High, still illumed after all these years, stored away all hope and transcendence. The trusted little countertop AM-FM radio (avocado green, a slight jagged crack along its top) on a clear night tuning in to hear, ‘Fifty thousand watts out of Mexico, this is the border radio‘. Evenings on the backyard stoops listening in on the world, watching the sky stretch itself out into the distance and then tumble apart. A modest weekday wash hung out to dry now Chinese prayer flags turned wishes fluttering in the trees, and if what the Tibetans say is true, part of the universe. The farthest of the faraway places called after him: a warm Egyptian night, a cool breeze, the moon on the Nile, and the banks of the river sliding by.
That huge grin, quick and easy, spread across so small a face.
The life of the mind blazed up bright in him. He saw nothing unusual in spending endless hours rooted to the spot, in what for him was an exquisite and inexhaustible quest, poring over Latin origins and Old and Middle English derivations, on the trail of African Zulus and Umkhonto we Sizwe, French impressionists and German genealogy, or uncovering the intellectual centers of the day a thousand years ago—Herat, Bacara, Sumerchan, and Alexandria, where the languages of the world collided and ideas were forged. Most nights only I see him there seated on a barstool hunched over the kitchen counter, head in hand, the house silent; an open volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica poised between him and the world; his eyes interrogating page after page. Preferring words and ideas to sleep and believing it to his advantage. I am filled full watching him.
With few exceptions, friends and classmates exhibited only a passing interest in school, in reading, writing, studying. Almost anything was preferred to what was viewed as the tedium at hand. The two or three others and I with scholarly leanings were effectively persuaded to downplay our regard for books and learning and when necessary bullied into place with the most withering critique of all, “What are you, trying to be White?” Directed at a fifteen-year-old, particularly in the late Sixties, it was difficult to counter.
I would give in to the intimidation, setting at rest a body that tended to remain at rest. Apart from English courses, which I simply could not abandon, and Study Hall, where I did next to no homework, but more importantly, had the chance to talk books with my friend Connie Di Stefano, I kept a low profile. Not taking books home to study became the norm. I could manage a ‘C’ average with minimal effort. By the second semester of senior year, I did only enough to ensure a passing grade. I managed on what I already knew and on innate abilities. It was a miscalculation I would regret. One that would haunt me throughout my twenties. Though I had not considered it for some time now it occurred to me that I have always harbored a healthy disregard for the Seventies. Perhaps a cold show of disgust for allowing such a thing to happen. Even so, it would be cowardly not to mention such a humiliating failure on my part. But to find the makings of your young self sprung from the private and solitary depths of your mind, by the equally private and solitary act of reading was an awakening. A coming to understand, as jarring and abrupt as you only now being made aware that regardless of what the history books say, there were still enslaved people fleeing the South at so late a date. The collected concerns of just such a small band of runaways had launched me headlong into what seemed in 1968 to have split the world apart.
Faced with the clumsy imperfections common to the young and bookish, but with my mind made up to match the fine example of my 11th grade English Literature and Composition teacher, Mr. Phelan, at Proviso East High, I kept my promise. I had determined to read more widely than the ‘required reading’ list for our class, all in an effort to know broadly and deeply the lay of this new land I found myself stranded in. A sounding or charting, of sorts—this running our eyes, fingers, and minds over the words on a page—and mapping the world in the process.
Our Mr. Phelan was a Sixties sensibility loosed without notice into the wayward halls of an otherwise dull and burdened institution. Young, tall, hipster cool in his sports jacket, tie, jeans, and shoulder-length hair, he stood in marked opposition to the status quo. He was an intelligent and engaging figure resolute in the belief we were capable of so much more given the least bit of guidance and concern. Predictably, many of the teachers took an immediate dislike to him (‘who did he think he was’, ‘with his big ideas’, ‘he’s new to all this’) while the students could not have been more pleased. We quickly became quite possessive of him and began to think of him as our own. For those widely read or with long memories, yes, this same Proviso East High, just outside Chicago, featured prominently in Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.
Being so well read, it seemed the whole of the world was completely and helplessly within his purview. Russian, German, and American writers were summarily juggled, three or four at once, with ease. The works of French, Italian, and Asian authors succumbed just as handily. Even untranslated texts posed little difficulty. Yet he was not the least bit pretentious or arrogant. He was remarkably generous with his knowledge and eagerly shared with each of us our full portion. Though we sat at his feet gazing in awe, he treated us as colleagues, respecting our judgments and insights as genuinely valid and significant. Who among us does not have a similar account of a teacher loved and respected who reinforced our sense of self during those early years?
I proudly read only fiction at the time. Biographies, letters, and memoirs were all a bit too personal for my liking. Non-fiction, for me, the domain of reality, represented sociology, race, politics, education, religion, government, and the like. It seemed a betrayal of literature’s lofty goals to become bogged down in the muck and mire of such real-life concerns. I lived, day by day, with the hatred and hostility of the real world. I knew what that entailed, and I didn’t care to spend my time reading about the misadventures of someone else’s reality. History was also met with some residual resistance, but in the end, proved a worthwhile exception.
I would not judge me too harshly. It was more a state of mind than a fully reasoned critique of the virtues of reading or writing fiction. Pride found many ways of informing my young life: I was proud of my hair, let my free flag fly; proudly wore those bell-bottom jeans. Pride would prove inadequate when asked to accommodate my feelings for “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud“; prouder still, of Fred Hampton; still proud of the University of Chicago.
All of this would work itself out just offstage of the grand spectacle that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention and under the skin of most of white American across the country. Looking away for only a moment and then back again, Michigan Avenue becomes a staging post for undercover agents and armed troops; Grant Park, a battlefield, where once ‘A blade of grass, this soil, this air, this summer sun’ formed of itself in my head. At heart a working-class town, the city’s reception of the freethinking, nonconformist cast of characters descending upon it could hardly be seen as unexpected. The deep fissures that marked that turbulent time raced across the country with what might have seemed random destruction and devastation in the mind of many. But which in fact followed conventional fault lines as predictable as Mayor Daley and “the Boys” (the Chicago Police Department), always spoiling for a bash; the War in Viet Nam and a whispered contingency accessible by car, involving Detroit, Windsor, and the Ambassador Bridge; the blackened ghettos of Washington, DC, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles; the local draft boards and a lottery to die for; where word had it the CIA and the National Student Association were consenting bedfellows; the Black Panthers leadership bound and gagged in the daytime soap opera that was the Chicago Eight; and Four Dead In Ohio amid calls of ‘We Shall Fight, We Will Win, Paris, London, Rome, Berlin’.
It was into this unholy divide that Mr. Phelan set foot. Fortunately for us, he had not come empty-handed. He would be the first to pose an entirely different set of questions for our consideration. Ones purposefully detailed and incisive. Of me he had asked, “Among the writers you have yet to read, who are the ones you are most eager to read?” and the understood follow-up, “Why?”. On another occasion, unrelated to any previous discussion, asking had I read Kafka, and adding, “I think you would find him interesting.’ Of another, “What do you make of Jane Austen’s, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’”? Here, you begin to understand why this was such a compelling turn of events. He had asked as if there were no question that our responses would be thoughtful and considered and would further the conversation, that what we thought counted, and that our experience of the world (spurned as it was) was no small matter. This did not go unnoticed. Through the strength of his intellect and his love of the written word, he helped instill in us the desire to fill our heads with words and books and the knowledge and wisdom of the worlds contained within them. With his encouragement, I ventured into The Trial and The Castle, Crime and Punishment, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Souls of Black Folk, The Sea of Fertility, Leaves of Grass, A Room of One’s Own, 1984, The Great Gatsby, and a dozen or so others during that extended year, summer included.
Then I read Go Tell It On The Mountain.
More than a brilliant first novel by a talented and gifted young writer with a bright and promising future, all of which was heralded quite excitedly as the God’s honest truth in 1953 when it was published, it was Baldwin’s eviscerating examination of the Black experience in America. In it, he recounts the lives of a church-centered Harlem family in the 1930s. These children of former slaves, the first wave of what would be called the Great Migration, poured forth from the rural South between 1910 and 1940 in search of a better life. Fittingly, it seems to me, my family would be among those signaling the end of the long exodus, settling primarily in northern cities in the Fifties and Sixties.
Baldwin pressed upon me the ugly, ugly truth: the dirt and filth of Mountain signaled something more profound than the condition of the floors, walls, ceilings, tenements, projects, and neighborhoods they dragged themselves in and out of each day. It embodied the torment and wretchedness common to Black life in America. It permeated every aspect of their existence. It settled on their skin and invaded their sleep. It robbed them of their dreams. They ate, slept, worked and died, owning nothing, possessing nothing, having dominion over nothing, not even themselves; endless numbers of jumbled and tangled lives intentionally designed to come to nothing.
At 17 I learned that truth. To say I did not deal with it well understates the matter and hangs uncomfortably on me. Closer to the truth, I behaved shamefully. I was sick and tired of hearing and reading about the lives of Black people spent singing, moaning, praying and waiting (always praying and waiting) for deliverance from on high; sick and tired of shattered dreams, broken bodies, and lives of filth and squalor. To watch paralyzing fear and confusion slide slowly down the face and empty into the heart of those you love dearly is to know irrevocably, and for all of time, the heartache of struggle. The anguish that then fills that space is the price exacted for insisting on their humanity. Few carry that weight well.
I never wanted to hear another “John 3:16,” or “Hallelujah,” or “Praise the Lord,” coming from the mouth of a Black person for as long as I might live. Broadly, for fear that indiscriminate brush might taint me, and more directly because, as I had taken to heart the old guard’s unrelenting imperative, ‘learn your letters’, I discovered I was shadowed by an immense shame associated with the voiced lives of most of the Black people I knew.
Baldwin had utterly shattered my idealized literary conceits and left them in a pile at my feet. Stopping squarely in front of me, he poked me in the chest with his finger and asked what was I doing. I knew exactly what he meant (Why hadn’t I questioned any of it) and he was right to do so. I had found a home in books and been persuaded that the stories they told, the values they espoused and the ideas they proclaimed were also for me, when in fact clearly they were not. They were books that did not take me into account and showed little or no concern at all for the lives of Black people. Then, stepping so close I could feel the force of his words and the heat of his breath on my face, he latched on to me with those troubling eyes and demanded I answer. I grew angry. I stuttered and stammered and paced about, filled with a burning rage, a stinging indictment that began at the base of the neck and reached my ears before I was able to extinguish it. I groped here and there, I grasped at the air, clutched for anything at all, to catch my terrible, tumbling fall: a rope, a paddle, a handbasket. Not prepared to face my shame or my fears, I wanted no part of him.
And time slowly divested itself of this world. In that empty moment, Tsvetaeva came calling, saying:
“Did you think love was just a chat at a small table?
Thick with breath and tobacco
smoke and endless talk”
I had indeed thought that a great deal of literary life was about small tables, tobacco smoke, drinks, and continued discussions about words and books. I imagined enlightened, engaged conversation carrying us into the night. Imagined not believing one’s ears and being dumbstruck by the beauty and grace of the words spilled out before us; tracking obscure references, settling old debts, discovering young, new voices, and disrobing charlatans. Like so much wind swaying in the trees. It would be such great fun. Could I have been more naïve?
Leaving Chicago for Los Angeles, I knitted together another seventeen years before encountering ‘Mountain‘ again and my latter-day road-to-Damascus moment, when the falling away of the scales was fully complete. In those intervening years, I often consoled myself with the excuse, ‘I was 17.’ Sometimes adding ‘for God’s sake’ and an exclamation point. I had taken my personal battles with Church, language, and identity out on him. Subsequent readings would show my displeasure lay decidedly within myself rather than with Baldwin’s words.
What was important later on, I think, was I simply let the work speak to me. I did not attempt to define it by my preconceptions or private misgivings. Only then did I see language, lyric and poetic, bound to anger, rage, and indignation expressed with an eloquence that rivaled Henry James in its beauty and strength. Only then see him track the universal in the personal while opening the interior life of Black people to the world. Only then witness him, with directness, clarity, and precision, strip away the façade of America’s hypocrisy routinely expressed through its disingenuous language.
From a fistful of words strewn across the pages of Giovanni’s Room, The Fire Next Time, and Notes of a Native Son, I gathered bit by bit, much of what would shape the middle years of my life. The essays especially were a monumental surprise, coming either as if from on high: humbling, stunning and indisputable or from one crying in the wilderness: damning and prophetic. Either way, that a Black man was writing his way through this life with such brilliance, was for me, nothing short of liberation. The slowly dawning determination that to write about such concerns meant he had been alone with the idea of such a thing in his head sent me reeling. Among the matters at hand were these:
“…I went there (Paris) to get away from the American Problem—the everyday insults and humiliation, the continual sadness and the rage—so that I could sit down and write with half a clear head.”
“God is Black. All Black men belong to Islam; they have been chosen. And Islam shall rule the world. The dream, the sentiment is old; only the color is new. …The White God has not delivered them; perhaps the Black God will.”
“…The Tunisians were quite right in 1956—and it was a very significant moment in Western (and African) history—when they countered the French justification for staying in North Africa with the question ‘Are the French ready for self-government?’”
There was easily enough material in those three ideas to keep me occupied for nine months to a year. Because he dared ponder them vigorously and considerately, he became, for me, that most dangerous person of all, a writer of immense standing, authority and influence.
As I read him, the ancestral memory and experience of Black people in America opened up to me in a way that made everything Angela Davis, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Du Bois, June Jordan, Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and all the others, had ever said, would ever say, resonate in my head with bold, new clarity. By what magic, I cannot say. What I can say is, they danced; the words did. Those rapt imaginings of a deep and troubled soul danced. What a lovely sound the dancing made.
Garry Howze is a writer and freelance critic based in Washington, DC. He worked for three years as the Books Coordinator at the Foundation for the National Archives. In conjunction with Public Programs, the Foundation and the Archives Shop staff, he was responsible for organizing and preparing the American Conversations Lecture Series, Noon and Night Time Lecture Series, and the annual Lincoln Symposium. His work has appeared in The Critical Flame: A Journal of Literature and Culture.