Pain is the Bridge

Today, as I walked in the 97 degree heat, I listened to WNYC’s Brian Lehrer interview scholar Eddie Glaude, chair of Princeton’s African-American studies department and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. Glaude’s sensibilities surrounding where we are right now in this world, and what Baldwin might have had to say about it, were profound. And then he went and read some Baldwin aloud, so you know things got deep.

Glaude references the term “after times” in his book which he attributes to Walt Whitman. Glaude uses this term to describe what others might call a backlash, that horribly inevitable moment when American racial progress is answered with resistance, often in the form of violence. Baldwin suffered as he witnessed the after times of the Civil Rights Movement, falling into despair, according to Glaude, after Dr. King was assassinated. There is something both affirming and devastating in knowing that a man such as Baldwin, who had seen so much go wrong in his years, could still feel so deeply betrayed.

Glaude explained that with his book he is looking to James Baldwin to help him contend with the “doubling down of ugliness” that he himself is witnessing in his America at this moment. He then shared an excerpt from Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” that included the following:

“You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”

“Pain is the bridge, ” said Glaude wearily, after reading.

The denouement of this interview may well have been a caller into the show, a man named Deforest (sic). He shared a moment he had with Baldwin many decades before. Quoting the Bible he had asked, “Mr. Baldwin, how shall we sing the songs of the Lord while in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4) Apparently Baldwin hesitated, and then answered, “I don’t know.” And then, in another beat Baldwin added, “But I simply know we must.”

I agree that we must. And those of us who bear less pain because of our privilege must also work to amplify the songs of those who continue to be drowned out. That is our personal must.

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