The Artist and Self-Reflection: James Baldwin and Lillian Smith
On a recent episode of “Dope with Lime,” I spoke with Michael Bibler about a recent course he taught, “Baldwin’s Queer South.” We spoke about a lot of things, but one thing that got me thinking was the role of art and the artist in the world. He mentioned James Baldwin’s “The Creative Process,” and after our discussion, I went to read Baldwin’s 1962 essay, and I revisited Lillian Smith’s “The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues,” a speech she delivered in 1965 after being the first recipient of the Queen Esther Scroll, awarded by the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress.” Both Baldwin and Smith explore the artist’s role in the examination and formation of society. They are not unique in this discussion, by any means; however, I find their exploration of these themes important for us to think about.
Baldwin calls the artist “that incorrigible disturber of the peace” who battles with society and its traditions. The artist, in every society, butts heads with tradition and with society’s desire to stand as a “bulwark against the inner and outer chaos,” protecting individuals from “themselves” in order for them to have a bearable life. The confrontation of tradition proves difficult and an irritant to most of society because, as Baldwin writes, “it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, that the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will almost be unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it.”
From this standpoint, the artist can be anything from a poet and novelist to a historian or literary critic. The acknowledgement that traditions, whatever they may be, have not been around forever is a direct affront to societies, namely because it gets in the way of maintaining power and controlling a populace. The artist faces these traditions head on, in whatever medium they work within, and illuminates the holes in the reasoning that claims a tradition has been with us since time immemorial. Look at the ways that people attack Nikkole Hannah Jones and the 1619 Project. Look at the rhetoric surrounding abortion never being legal in the United States before Roe v. Wade. Look at the individuals claiming Kiku Hughes was being ahistorical in Displacement when she included…