I am a black man, Brooklyn-based, ﬁfty-four years old as I write this. For nearly as long as I can remember, there has been, at the core of my being, making me who I am, or who I feel that I am, the belief that I must treat everyone as an individual, that I must not base my judgments on anything as inconsequential as skin color. And for most of my adult life, I have chosen to see myself as an American, because of the contributions black people have made to this country, because of how inextricably this country is tied to my heritage, and despite white racists’ belief that the country is theirs more than it is mine. Living according to these principles has sometimes been tough. In my late teens and twenties, moving from the all-black environment where I grew up to integrated circles in college and beyond, I sometimes felt like the only black person I knew who was not reluctant—because of distrust, dislike, or both—to be in the predominantly white settings where my interests often took me. I clung stubbornly to my beliefs, and in my mid-twenties I found what I considered to be support for my point of view when I picked up, somewhat belatedly, the books of James Baldwin. Leaving aside, for a moment, the music of Baldwin’s sentences, the grandness of his vision, the wisdom and lyricism he brings to expressing the anger and ache of being black in America, he was the ﬁrst model I found of one who brought everything he had to bear on opposing racism without being racist himself. His ﬁction, particularly the underappreciated Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and his nonﬁction, none more eloquent than The Fire Next Time, are the work of a man who rages at injustice but loves deeply and without regard to pigmentation. While the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., along with other aspects of the backlash against the civil rights movement, left Baldwin embittered and disillusioned, they did not ultimately compromise his humanity or make him into a racist. He remained, for me, a model of how to conduct oneself with regard to race.
And yet I still felt some confusion. There was one substantive difference between me and the white people in my circle: being white, I discovered, seemed to make one exempt from the question of who one is. They were Americans, these white people, and it never seemed to occur to them, and certainly no one ever indicated to them, that they should think otherwise. Many black people, of course, are exempt from this question of who they are, too, by virtue of living and working largely or wholly among other blacks. But if a person’s life and interests take him—as mine have taken me—to places where he looks different from most others, that person may begin to ask where the similarities between himself and these others end and the differences, beyond the obvious one, begin; what the basis for these similarities is, and what the basis for the differences is; and into which camp—similarity or difference?—nationality falls.
And with regard to the very question of whether nationality constitutes a bond or barrier between oneself and others—the basis of this question is an unspoken assumption that runs so deep, that is reinforced so often and in so many ways, that I passed three decades of life on Earth before I questioned it. The assumption? That being American means being white. At best, the place of blacks in all this seemed to be the one described by the comedian Chris Rock, who said that for us, America is like the uncle who molested you and then paid for your college education.
As much as I would like to say that I began to question that assumption on my own, I had help. It was the work of the essayist Stanley Crouch, which in turn led me to the work of his mentor (and soon to be mine), Albert Murray, that opened my eyes. Murray’s books, beginning with The Omni-Americans, proposed an alternate view: that America, rather than being simply a white monster that feeds on people of color and that only the most self-hating of dark-skinned folks would identify with, is in fact largely a black creation—in terms of everything from culture to physical labor—and that the blood, sweat, and investment of generations of blacks makes America our home as much as it is anyone’s. According to this view, the struggles blacks have historically faced have provided the obstacles over which we demonstrated the ability to triumph. As Murray wrote in The Omni-Americans: “The legendary exploits of white U.S. backwoodsmen, keelboatmen, and prairie schoonermen . . . become relatively safe when one sets them beside the breathtaking escapes of the fugitive slave beating his way south to Florida, west to the Indians, and north to far away Canada through swamp and town alike seeking freedom—nobody was chasing Daniel Boone!” To say “I am an American,” then, is not an act of capitulation but the ﬁrst step toward claiming one’s birthright, recognizing the setting of one’s ancestors’ triumphs and adventures; it is tantamount to saying, “I am home.”
The symbol for this idea, the art form that allows me to celebrate this notion of laying claim to a home, birthright, and identity, is jazz. The basis of jazz, a black contribution to American and world culture, is improvisation—a metaphor for the story of black Americans, who have historically had to make a way where none existed before, a way that brought about both the Underground Railroad and the civil rights movement. Every time a jazz musician improvises a passage, he or she cel- ebrates this history. I embraced the sound and what it stood for: the ﬂeet-footed sweetness of the alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the crusty vulnerability of Ben Webster’s tenor sax, the spare melancholy of Miles Davis’s trumpet, the sheer might of the original tenor man, Coleman Hawkins, the beautiful eccentricity of Thelonious Monk’s piano, the deceptive laziness of Billie Holiday’s voice, the doggedness and inventiveness of the young Freddie Hubbard as he played trumpet lines over and through the thundering drumbeats of Art Blakey—the doggedness and inventiveness necessary for survival, for any jazz musician, any black person, anyone at all.
And so, in my early thirties, a youngish man and new father to a biracial child, a budding essayist who earned his living as an editor and copyeditor, a seeker after cultural knowledge, with Murray in my head and Baldwin in my heart, I set out into the big bad world: reading book after book while straphanging on my way to and from work, listening at night to those jazz records that were the record of my people’s contribution, believing all the while in the rightness of calling myself an American, as years, and then two decades, passed. Along the way, the ﬁrst black president was elected, which appeared to conﬁrm what I had already decided. Along the way, events may have chipped at the outside of my beliefs; killings of blacks, from Trayvon Martin on through Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and so many others, may have led me to question whether I really wanted to call home a place where the police were seemingly paid to kill people who looked like me. And yet neither Baldwin nor Murray had ever said that I wouldn’t have to ﬁght to protect my place in this land I called home. With many others, I took to the streets over those killings and believed I was doing so in service of my country. Perhaps some, black and white, wondered how I could be so evenkeeled, and perhaps some, white as well as black, wanted me to be angrier. Some whites, in particular, appeared to think I should act, through my anger, as their conscience. The problem was that I already had a job—I did not have time to be anyone’s conscience—and there is a word for one who does others’ work for no pay (and I’m not thinking of “intern”). And so my beliefs, at bottom, held steady.
And then came the election of Donald Trump.
For a black man who has based his life on a belief in treating everyone as an individual and on an identiﬁcation with America, what is the right response to a successful presidential campaign that brought out xenophobia like lava from a volcano? How do I respond to the fact that the majority of white voters, whom I have refused to hate as a group, supported this man? Should I hold on even tighter to the notion of being an American and ﬁght to protect myself and my country from this menace? Or should I distance myself from a country where so many people seem to have demonstrated that they care nothing about me? Is it time to resign my post as the only nonracist black person in America? Or is now—when my principles are sorely tested—the most crucial time to hold on to them?
I had arrived at my beliefs with the help of Baldwin and Murray. But I began to sense during this crisis that I needed still another writer—not to give me answers, but to serve as a model for how I might ﬁnd them on my own.
* * *
This writer puts me in mind—if this comparison is not too odd—of 1970s TV detectives, the kind with distinguishing characteristics; only instead of being old like Barnaby Jones, or overweight like Cannon, or a paraplegic like Ironside, or blind like Longstreet, or rumpled like Columbo, this writer-detective has characteristics you can’t see at a glance, and her show, if she had one, would be highly unusual indeed. This writer-detective is a woman, yes, but her distinctiveness doesn’t even begin there. She is glamorous—wearing dark glasses and dark, shoulder-length hair, holding a cigarette in long, elegant ﬁngers—but her thinness and vague air of uncertainty and sadness also make her seem frail. All of that is odd enough in a detective, but it would be during the show’s climax that we would see what truly makes her special. This is the part of every program when the detective reveals what really happened, who did the deed and why. As our detective begins to explain, we are struck by the length of her sentences: we think they’re about to end, then realize they’re just getting started, cohering perfectly for all their complexity and gathering force as they go; they have great power, these sentences, the force and sweep of a ﬂood—but just as a ﬂood is an awesome force carrying along all manner of small objects, these sentences, for all their epic proportions, are full of telling details. And yet even this isn’t the astounding part. More startling than the power of our detective’s phrasing is what she actually says, which is the opposite of what TV detectives usually say. The mystery, she tells us, gazing straight into the camera, will remain a mystery—because despite all she has learned about it, which is more than most would have uncovered, there are some things that no one knows or ever can know, secrets that a few are privy to but the rest of us never will be. Are you confused by what you’ve seen and heard, feeling somehow that it lacks logic or a point? Then, says the detective, you and I together have arrived at the same truth.
Who is this writer, this un-detective, this well-informed, tragic ﬁgure telling us that the more we learn, the less we know? She is Joan Didion.
It was because of my own writing that I began to investigate Didion’s work. In the 1990s, around the time I started a family, I also began to write essays—many of them published in The Threepenny Review—that discussed books, jazz, ﬁlm, and painting in relation to my own life, essays that mixed the personal with the critical, which I didn’t see anyone else doing quite the same way. Here, it seemed, was the purpose of all my obsessive reading, all my late-night sessions of listening to classic jazz after putting the girls to bed, all my mad scribbling of previously unknown ﬁlm titles, book titles, album titles in my ever-present pocket notebook. Writing about jazz, in particular, became a way of writing about life’s challenges, and a few years later those pieces, along with personal essays and pieces on books and ﬁlm, race and identity, made their way into my ﬁrst book.
But how much is truly original? Whatever innovations I may have brought to the form, I knew I wasn’t the ﬁrst writer to inject personal elements into criticism and journalism or vice-versa; and so, wanting to explore what my forebears had done, I began a serious reading of the so-called New Journalists with whose works I was casually acquainted. I checked out books by Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson; I read quite a bit of Norman Mailer’s nonﬁction and everything written up to that time by Tom Wolfe (a piece on Wolfe would appear in my ﬁrst book). But as much as I enjoyed Wolfe’s similes and smart-assedness, Talese’s calm eloquence, Thompson’s wackiness, and Mailer’s sheer ego, there was one writer among this crowd whose work, for me, surpassed the rest.
More than any of the others, Joan Didion’s essays gave me the sense—for all that some call her inscrutable—of revealing the person behind them, of letting the reader in, as suggested by her oft-repeated phrase “I want to tell you about . . .” And once, in assessing the character of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she might have been talking instead about herself—“a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees.”
Didion’s work appealed to me for other reasons, too. Her sadness, her ﬂirtations with a sense of meaninglessness, spoke to something in me. I had, I supposed, also reached what the novelist Jane Smiley calls the “age of grief,” one that perhaps every parent, deep in his or her heart, comes to eventually. In 2006 my wife, my daughters, and I vacationed at a lake house in Maine with two other couples and their young children. The setting was gorgeous, the water clear, the air pleasantly crisp and ﬁlled with our kids’ joyous shouts; here was the kind of atmosphere that ought to have inspired me, even if it inspired only my contented sighs, but also the kind that can sometimes point up, by contrast, what is wrong. “Usually such beautiful landscapes ﬁll me with a sense of possibility,” I wrote in my journal during that vacation, in an entry dated August 25, 2006; I went on to note my “old sadness/sense of pointlessness, esp. as regards the kids—sadness for them, a feeling of futility for them.” Watching my girls running around outside and having fun with the other kids, which should have made me happy, only gave me the feeling that in the end their earnest, heartbreaking efforts to do, learn, and grow would pass into oblivion along with their childhoods, would amount to—what?—in a big world that wouldn’t love my children the way I did. In the journal entry, written more than a decade ago now, I can feel my effort to comfort myself, as when I wrote, “[T]he past isn’t past. The good memories of childhood (just like the bad ones) are with you always. NOTHING is FUTILE, in life or art.” I needed to hold on to something, clearly. The ﬁrst sentence of Didion’s essay “The White Album” comes to mind: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
I was trying to allay my worries, but I wonder now if the true cause of those worries about my daughters was that they were being raised and protected, in this mean, mean world, by . . . me? Surely those wonderful girls deserved someone smarter, stronger, more capable? The happier my children seemed, the sadder their plight appeared to me, those poor kids blind to the shakiness of their lives’ foundations. Somehow—and so far—those girls, now young women, have survived despite having a father who managed to pass the age of ﬁfty without getting it through his skull what his country really thinks of him. Or is now—when my principles are sorely tested—the most crucial time to hold on to them? Or is this very question a desperate attempt to evade the ugly truth? Is it worse, as twilight approaches, to be a fool or to turn my back on what makes me who I am?
In this dark hour, it is the quality of Didion’s that she observed in Georgia O’Keeffe—being “clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees”—that I most need to take on as my own. Given recent events, given daily affirmation that the country I have chosen to identify with has chosen a racist as its leader, how do I continue to live in the only place I have ever called home? To know, it is necessary to take a clear-eyed look at that place, and at myself, as Didion has so many times, and to be open to what I see there, whether or not it is what I hope to ﬁnd.
If anyone seems to understand the problem of getting through one’s life without even the most basic knowledge of how, it is Didion. In “The White Album,” Didion wrote about her seemingly normal functioning during a period of profound personal confusion, “This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did.”
The irony here is that if Didion felt she lacked the ability, in her life, to improvise—that ability at the heart of jazz—her writing is absolutely jazzlike. In her sentences, phrases riff on one another (“tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that . . .”); long dependent clauses explore ideas suggested by main clauses, as the work of a jazz horn player explores chords undergirding melody; and in her investigations of topics, Didion gets to the heart of things without knowing beforehand what is there, where she is going; she goes in with her eyes open to what she will ﬁnd, and she responds accordingly, like a jazz musician responding to what his bandmates are playing, acting in the moment.
Now, aching over my empty nest and contemplating the world around me, it is the improvisatory skill and doggedness of the jazz musician and the clear sight of Joan Didion that I hope to bring to this book. Through travel and the one-on-one interviews recorded here, I have even tried to emulate the way Didion sets out to see, for herself, not what is in her own head but what is really going on.
Clifford Thompson January 2018