My Generation Can Learn a Lot From James Baldwin

His words remind us that in our history, there is hope

Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty

TThere’s a reason why James Baldwin is my Twitter avatar. I read “Sonny’s Blues” when I was 13, and there was something I loved so much about how he wrote about the Black community. Oftentimes, when there is a documentation of our trauma, especially by people outside of our community, we are used to that being the only note. We are used to being defined by it. He maintains this duality of both acknowledging and interrogating our oppression and the symptoms of that within the community, while never ceasing to celebrate us.

I turn to his work and his words on so many occasions; it’s still relevant today. You open Jimmy’s Blues, his book of poetry, and on the first page he’s discussing our country’s dealings with Russia and trade negotiations with China in the 1960s. I remember reading this and just being completely astounded because not only are his themes still current, but some of the details of his writing are uncanny.

I also turn to his work because, as a country, we continue to go through many of the same situations he wrote about. I find comfort in this. It means you can look back at not only the egregious things that have happened, but the action that counteracted them. It’s dangerous to believe that this is the first time these things are happening, that this is the first time we’ve seen communities being exiled socially, politically, and culturally. It’s dangerous to believe this is the first time we’ve seen this kind of blatant racism or discrimination, xenophobia, or sexism — because as communities, we have gone through all of this so many times before.

When I look at Baldwin’s writing as it relates to what is happening now, there are a couple of things I see. One is the importance of unity in this moment. Baldwin always spoke of an immense amount of love while still holding people accountable. And that’s something that I’m actively trying to practice. It’s hard to be in conversation with somebody who seems to stand for everything you stand against and to hold any sort of empathy. But in his writing, Baldwin indicts America and the mainstream while maintaining a sense of love. Baldwin once said that the reason he loves America more than any place in the world is that he has the right to consistently criticize her. That is the message I’ve received from his work.

II love Baldwin’s writing, but also I admire his political work. It took me some years to really dig in and find out how involved he was in the civil rights movement. This is something Raoul Peck explores in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Despite him going to France to seek a reprieve from American politics, Baldwin returns to this country after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. It’s this sense of indebtedness to the U.S. that I’ve always found inspiring.

I turn to James Baldwin’s work and his words on so many occasions; it’s still relevant today.

I feel this same indebtedness, and I am similarly motivated. I am proud to be Black and proud to be Iranian, living a life I’m really fortunate to live. But this is the result of so much pre-work. For me to have this life, it took many people investing in a future they knew they weren’t going to see. It took people deciding to work toward something that may not directly benefit them — whether you go back as far as Africans developing transportation in Egypt, or more recently, to the people who put their lives on the line in the civil rights movement. I know it took lifetimes for me to experience the freedom I have, so when I think of indebtedness, I think of paying it forward, as so many people did before me.

I’I’ve always been involved in a lot of initiatives but I decided to create an organization focused on voting so that we could really have this larger conversation around what it means to be enfranchised rather than disenfranchised. Voting has become an essential issue to me because it incorporates every other issue we are facing. What I’ve been seeing, whether it’s our conversation about the abortion ban in Alabama, or the active genocide of communities that is happening globally, is that the issue of voting is a way to have these conversations about all of these topics without prioritizing one over the other. It’s hard for me to choose one issue because I know that whatever I choose is going to be based on my biases of what I experience on a daily basis, and what’s in my purview and what isn’t. I know the way I center my identity is not the way that everyone else does. Voting has become a moment to have a larger conversation around the fact that every issue is interconnected. As much as we talk about voting, we know all of our work has to extend past the polls.

Coming from a family in entertainment, one thing my parents said when I was very young — and which points to who I am as a socially engaged human — was: “Acting is something that we do but it is not who we are.” To me, it meant that we can pour as much as we can into the roles that we’ve committed to, but never allow ourselves to be solely defined by being an actor. As a result, I’ve always viewed myself more largely as a creative human who somehow found my way onto television, as opposed to an actor first.

My job is to make 22 minutes of content every week. You have to figure out what gives that meaning.

The other thing my parents did is to have us delegate how much money we are going to save, how much we’re going to spend, and how much we’re going to donate. Because my mother has always said, “Money is supposed to flow,” meaning that you cannot make money if you do not give it. And a part of that flow, a part of our responsibility, is that as we receive we continue to give.

I’m not talking just about monetary donations. It’s a philosophy I’ve taken into the rest of my life. It’s about how do I take this platform I’ve been given and use it. How do I make use of the fact that people are willing to listen to me, have me on panels where I’m asked questions about the political state of America? It’s something I’m keenly aware of. It may sound convoluted, but my self-care is in being able to speak out. And being able to utilize this platform, because otherwise, the entire world of entertainment can feel extremely trivial. My job is to make 22 minutes of content every week. You have to figure out what gives that meaning. Is it that you’re providing joy? Is it that you get to talk about things and help shift conversations?

WeWe are headed into quite an interesting presidential election. What makes it more interesting is the sheer number of candidates this time around. We’re also having a presidential election in a time of crisis. It’s a time in which our relationships with the world at large are being threatened, a time in which problematic new relationships are being formed. We see the upheaval of every kind of civil rights movement. And I think we knew this was going to happen.

Within the first 90 days of the Trump administration, he re-signed the Dakota Access Pipeline agreement. This, after seeing how people put their physical bodies on the line to protect that space. That was one of the first markers that this was going to be a moment where we would see a lot of reversal.

When we look at this election, one thing I’ve observed is that there is not one candidate right now who has the vote of the young people. We have a lot of candidates with long political records. And what we know to be true is that everybody has something in their history that does not resonate with my generation. What we also know to be true is that there’s a large reconciliation that has to happen, and we’re witnessing it. What have politicians actually changed? Have they acknowledged the misdoings of their past? My generation has to figure out what it means to see, for example, a politician who has said dumb things that were anti-LGBTQ.

When we look at this election, one thing I’ve observed is that there is not one candidate right now who has the vote of the young people.

At the same time, I’m grateful to be in this space where our generation is extremely supportive and protective of all identities. There are things in this country that haven’t been normative — this is what motivates us to be so active. This is what has propelled us to continue to do the groundwork and figure out: What’s the change we need to see immediately?

It’s a hard conversation to be had. Because not everyone wants to work within a system. We understand that when you work within a system, there is only so much change that can be done. And that system will come with limitations. As we’ve witnessed time and again, the radical point of view is being completely disregarded.

The way my generation shows our patriotism is different from so many generations prior. We show our patriotism by active critique. We show it by actively wanting to better the world that we’re in. I am grateful to live in this moment in time. As insane as it is, I am able to look to my left, to my right, ahead of me, and behind me, and see so many people dedicating their lives to fighting for others. I’m grateful not to be an anomaly.

I’m grateful to be in this period of time in which I’ve seen so many mentors and so many peers who have tacitly thrown themselves into this world that they know is going to be tumultuous. They know it’s going to require a lot of emotional energy. And they know that they have to be concerned for their physical well-being as well. I appreciate this idea of always working in concert, that we will all rise together. That makes me really hopeful.

We don’t integrate, we recreate. | Sun is Also a Star | Grownish