It has been 55 years since one of this nation’s most prolific and profound thinkers, James Baldwin, first published his essay “Stranger in the Village”. Baldwin recounted his experiences visiting the remote Swiss village of Leukerbad and being the first Black man many of its inhabitants had ever encountered. Baldwin ingeniously employed the anecdote of his isolation in the tiny village as a platform from which to expound on his thoughts concerning racism, cultural identity, and the social conditions of the United States at the time.
In 2010, I was invited to a festival in the Country of Poland to perform as an artist, professional storyteller and musician. While my experiences in Poland were analogous to Baldwin’s extreme isolation in Switzerland, they ended up being much less discordant. Many of my encounters in Poland awoke dormant memories of words from his essay that I had not reflected on, nor read, in more than 20 years.
My invitation to attend the Festiwal Dzialan Kreatywnych came in the form of emails and a few phone calls from its organizer. He and I had worked together on a festival the previous year in the Warsaw suburb of Konstancin-Jeziorna. For the most part our discussions centered on the typical logistics, itinerary, and performance schedules. Unlike Baldwin’s early warnings from his host that he would be a “sight” for the village, not once did our discussions ever lead us in the direction of race or racism in Poland or what I might expect to encounter while there.
The festival for 2010 was held in the small fishing port and vacation town of Leba. It is a quiet, unassuming town bordering the shores of the Baltic Sea and has a modest population of approximately 4,000. Many of the locals refer to Leba as a village, and that, in many ways is the atmosphere it offers visitors. The streets are narrow and combine residential and commercial in an almost haphazard way. Walking is the preferred mode of transportation throughout the town and almost everything is accessible within a few minutes. It is definitely a Polish vacation spot with all of the trappings offered by any tourist destination in the world: rows and rows of small souvenir shops, fast food eateries around every corner and local artisans selling their wares on the stone-paved sidewalks and in the parks of the town.
Having lived in both New York and Los Angeles, I am always intoxicated by the feel, scent and taste of unpolluted air in other, less congested, areas of the world. The small town of Leba gifted me with an opportunity to inhale and exhale in a powerfully deep manner that I’ve learned never to take for granted.
The festival’s base of operation was the town’s local library, which had as quaint and modest a setting as the town it was surrounded by. There were only 5 computers with Internet access available for public use in the town, four in the library and one in the local bank. Although Leba had the appearance of an isolated village such as described by Baldwin in his essay, the intrusion of technology and mass media, although minimal, led me toward the illusion that my present-day experiences would be much more cosmopolitan than his.
During my stay in Leba I encountered three types of personalities: Those who engaged me socially and intellectually on equal footing; those who seemed to struggle with some form of angst in attempting to engage me and, finally, those whom it appeared had never encountered a Black man before seeing me.
The latter was more amusing than frustrating when considering the impositions of isolation I was experiencing. I hadn’t been in the town but a few hours when I was walking down one of the slender, stone paved sidewalks searching for a store from which to purchase water when I spotted a young boy attempting to walk and stare at me simultaneously. He had to have been about 9 years of age. He was walking hand in hand with a woman, possibly his mother, on the opposing side of the street, which is not saying much since four of his steps across the road could have put us on the same sidewalk. The child could not avert his stare from me and I read the disproportionate curiosity in his eyes to be that he was encountering something extraordinary to his reality. I felt sorry for the child as his fixation on me made him bump head first into an awaiting light pole which, of course, brought on a flood of tears and pain-laden wailing. The counter balance to this child’s intense fascination with me was that I had, only moments before, made eye contact with the woman holding his hand. She had been as congenial in her nod and smile towards me as she might have been with any neighbor she met passing on the street.
Throughout my stay I was in a constant state of reflection. The people, the town, the language and culture were all intriguing. It wasn’t long before I began noticing patterns in behavior of many of the people I encountered. It was interesting to note that those who seemed most unbalanced by my appearance in Leba were either the elderly or very young. The social filters of those two generations seemed to have not been learned or dissipated with age, if they ever existed.
There were times when my experiences can only be described as surreal. It wasn’t as if I were intentionally searching out these incidents in order to verify some sort of hypothesis. I was having ‘stranger in the village’ type encounters continuously simply by engaging in my daily activities.
Early in the festival I was sitting next to an eleven year old child and enjoying a short conversation in broken English, trying with all sincerity, but little success, to answer her questions about American Pop Culture and Justin Beiber when she spontaneously began rubbing my arm.
“Baba,” she asked in a tone reminiscent of my own daughters, “which one of your parents is white…your mom or your dad?”
I wanted to know what would prompt such a question and asked her what made her think that either of my parents was white. In a voice filled with childish innocence, she stated that I did not look like “a black”. This young girl had not experienced the abundance of hues coloring the Continent of Africa. Her reasoning for my lighter complexion was that I had to be of mixed parentage. For me, these types of encounters are “teaching moments,” opportunities to enlighten or be illuminated by another. I explained the diversity of populations in Africa. She was as enthusiastic a learner as I was a teacher. Awareness of my isolation in Leba was, momentarily, replaced by a feeling of contentedness, a sense that I was serving, even if on a minuscule level, part of my purpose as an artist for being there.
These gentle moments of respite were sometimes disrupted by other experiences not as tender but equally important. Although most people I met in Leba were exceedingly pleasant, there were, as could be expected, hiccups in decorum that drew me back into Baldwin’s tiny Swiss village and the feeling of being a stranger. During a very friendly conversation with an exceptionally amiable man of about 35 years of age or so, he, in as innocent a fashion as anyone could possibly imagine dropped the distinct two syllable utterance “Nigger” in the middle of a phrase as he was speaking to me. His facial expression, one of both joy and adoration, was totally in opposition to the horrendous word that fell from his lips. He continued speaking and smiling at me with an irrepressible glow in his eyes; delighted to be sharing space and time and, to a greater degree, holding himself in deference for what he continually reminded me was the wealth of wisdom he thought I possessed.
My initial response, the response that burned at the core of who I am, was to react violently and charge him with an unacceptable level of ignorance at having used such a reprehensible word in my presence. Once again, I recalled Baldwin’s essay and the internal war he waged with himself when faced with similar situations. I remained calm knowing that this man was absolutely oblivious of the history, meaning or negative energy that this word carried with it in the United States.
Accepting the reality of my situation permitted my heart rate to lower and my mind to gather itself more clearly. As I would a child, I walked him through the error of his choice of words. To say he was shocked would be a tremendous understatement. Although I felt at ease in the moment, I don’t think I was capable of hiding the disappointment that registered on my face. He was riddled with shame and near tears by the time we ended our conversation. He was apologizing incessantly and would not stop no matter how much I pleaded with him. He let me know that he had heard the word used many times on television and thought it to be a word used when two men were bonding or accepting of one another. His pleading that I not see him in such a light, or as the type of human being who would ever seek to offend me did not fall on deaf ears.
A while later, after we had parted, I sat in a small corner cafe with a cup of tea, reflecting on what had just occurred. I couldn’t help but to recall my stay in Mali, West Africa when I encountered a young man who spoke limited English. This young man had chased after me down the street, proud to demonstrate his proficiency in English by yelling at me, “Baba what’s up my Nigger?” I was as much a stranger in Leba dealing with the offensive misstep of this Polish man as I was in the town of N’tomikorobougou, taken aback by the young Bambara man’s provocative choice of words. Both men responded in a similar manner and both were despondent when I explained, in depth, the meaning, history and substance of the word. The young Bambara man had learned his American style colloquialism through exported rap music videos, which so many of the youth in Africa love and mimic without question.
While in Leba I was continuously attempting to balance the stress of my isolation with a mindfulness of why I had come. I had arrived in Leba to share my narrative, stories, music and ideas. For the preservation of my sanity, I needed to keep my work at the forefront of my mind. Fortunately, the evenings, alone in my room, offered me opportunities to reflect and relax. Odd as it may seem, I found that level of solitude, alone in my room, to be invigorating. The night brought with it a calm that helped me deal with with some of the issues of isolation.
The mornings offered as much serenity as did the evenings. Each day in Leba at around 7 am, a local church bell chimed the hour and continued throughout the day until 9 at night. It was as pleasant for me to wake to these sounds, as it was to wake to the morning calls to prayer of muezzins from mosques in West Africa. One Sunday morning I woke to the booming voice of a woman tenor singing ‘Ave Maria,’ during an outdoor church service being held only yards away from my hotel window. I couldn’t help to recall the amazing voice of a Murid visiting our compound in The Gambia and singing, beautifully, the praises of Chiek Amadou Bamba.
At times, although the sights and sounds of Leba were inviting, there was always an uneasy, somewhat unpleasant level of consciousness of history that invaded my thoughts. The role of religion in the subjugation of my ancestors continually abducted my attempts to savor the picturesque Christian art and architecture of the small town, much as it did Baldwin in the village he visited. While walking past an amazing stone structure I recalled Baldwin’s essay. I realized, just as he had, that I was unable to completely savor the aesthetics of what was being offered to me as much as my European hosts. Baldwin elaborated on this dynamic when he mentioned, in his essay, that the beautiful architecture of the Cathedral at Chartres spoke something to the people of the village that it could not say to him.
I know that many readers will view these impromptu, involuntary reflections on past atrocities as dissonant invasions of my peace of mind. I prefer to place them in another context. This stream of consciousness is an ever-present reminder of those whose legacy I have inherited. It is the memory of men, women and children who survived the 3-month journey crossing the Atlantic in the filthy bowel of slave ships. My involuntary reflections assure that I never forget the more than 250 years of inhumane bondage deeply woven into the fabric of American history.
As a means of escaping the constant reminders of my isolation, one evening, in my hotel room, I decided to watch television. I had been in Leba for almost an entire week and had yet to turn it on. There was the usual programming: news, international sports, etc. While changing channels I was unexpectedly accosted by disturbing and destructive imagery on the screen. With the remote in my hand I found myself immobilized, unable to turn away from what I was witnessing. I was watching, on Polish television, a white man in black face rising from his bed in the morning. A white man in black face! Images of Al Jolson and the sounds of Jump Jim Crow fused with rapid running reels from Birth of a Nation flooded my mind. I could not pull myself away from watching. I was obligated to watch. Even though I did not understand a single word of Polish that was being spoken, I was the proverbial moth to a flame. It appeared the protagonist in this sitcom had awakened as a black man after having gone to bed white. Everyone else in the show seemed to think they were originally black except him and he was languishing in the throes of a deep depression. It was shades of Van Peebles ‘Watermelon Man’ but with an enormous playing up of stereotypical movements, gestures, eye bugging and drawls in the language, which were so easy to discern.
I wondered how many people in the small town of Leba were watching this obvious display of bigoted “entertainment”. How many people were watching and enjoying this production that I would eventually trade hellos with on the street or perform for during my stay? 2010 and Europeans were watching a television show of a man sporting Black Face. This should not have come as any shock to me as I’ve been subjected to these same sorts of racial parodies in the United States since birth. The affront has come in the form of antiquated stereotypical characterizations in Hollywood films and, most recently, through perversions and distortions of cultural identity in many music videos.
To jump towards the word racism would be an over simplification and misuse of the term. I did not know the intent of the artists, producers or even the public watching the production. What I do know is that the sort of portrayal that I was witnessing on the screen perpetuates, and sustain, by-products of racism such as ignorance, denial and disingenuity. I have been accused of being “overly” sensitive when it comes to issues that deal with the faux science of race. I have sat side by side with friends and family and watched them shed tears in fits of laughter at such stereotypical distortions as I was subjecting myself to at that moment in my hotel room in Leba. There is an incongruity that has plagued me most of my adult life. Many in the United States label their ability to laugh at stereotypical distortions as “healthy senses of humor.” Few of these same people have ever balanced their “healthy senses of humor” with an equal weight of emotion given to the sadness or grief of this nation’s horrifying historical narrative. This imbalance in emotional equilibrium in family and friends is something that has always disturbed me.
Watching that television in my hotel room in Leba ignited a flame within me that Baldwin described in his essay as “the rage of the disesteemed.” This reactionary anger has been a constant and unwelcome guest intruding throughout my life. It is an anger that doesn’t permit its victim to ask how or why cultural ignorance and bigotry avoid extinction because he already knows. It is anger passed down through generations having witnessed the constant cosmetic altering of the top layers of racist social, political and economic structures. It is an anger at appearing but remaining as unseen today as Ellison’s “Invisible Man” of the past. It is anger at knowing you are a stranger in a land soaked with the blood of your ancestors as much as you are in a small village in Poland.
There is a proverb born out of Africa that I love which says, “An angry heart devours its owner.” I could allow the perverted parody on the television to distract me from my purpose for being in Leba, or I could choose to ascend its ignorance and reclaim my purpose. I had crossed continents to share my narrative, my music, my stories and commune in an exchange with others of like mind. To permit ignorance and racist puppetry to deter me would be akin to being defeated before ever setting a single foot on the battlefield.
I turned the television off, not as a form of avoidance behavior but as a means of re-channeling my psyche to serve my purpose. I had an audience waiting for me. There were people waiting to hear what I had to say.
There are those who might infer that the popularity of my storytelling performances in Leba had a lot to do with the fact that I was somewhat of an anomaly. After all, here I was in a culturally homogeneous town. Some might also say that people came out to see the “Black Man” talk and sing. I would not argue at all with these assumptions. There are precedents for these observations and, on their surface; they house a modicum of truth. It is a known fact that human beings tire quickly of novelty. If I had been simply a novelty, as a performer, to many of the townspeople, then my exchanges with them would have lacked any depth whatsoever. The loyal following of listeners who came every morning and returned at night erased any notion of novelty from my mind. My audiences engaged in discussions, asked questions and searched for profundity of meaning in the proverbs, stories and anecdotes I shared. We communed, not as a Black Entertainer with an all white Polish Audience but more so as thinking individuals who shared a common appreciation for the power of words, music and intellectual stimulation.
During my time in Leba there were those individuals, as well as families, that came to every single show and stayed long afterward. These people opened discussions and dialogued with me during and after every performance. Some of them even offered me tales of wisdom that they hoped I would take and share with other audiences during my travels. If I had continued to allow the sadism of the blackface sitcom to abduct my thoughts during my stay then my perception of those who frequented my performances would have been altered. I would have only been able to see relatives of the blackface actors sitting before me. I would have questioned their motives for being in my presence. In many ways I was being reminded of racism’s vicious proclivity to damage the psyches of both victim and assailant simultaneously.
Racism as a tool and extension of the pathological, perverted thought processes of so many Americans is a ravaging parasite that feeds on its host for self-preservation regardless of cultural identity or historical legacy. Noted historian Carter G. Woodson once reminded us “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” Although the aberration existed in Baldwin’s era, I think there exists a seed of racism much more pronounced today. Grotesque ideations born of racism are espoused by many whose ancestors survived subjugation. As a disease of the mind, racism knows not color or ethnicity. Scaling the wall of denial and living in ignorance of the legacy of my ancestors is not, nor has it ever been, an option for me.
I found myself contrasting and comparing my experiences in Poland to those in the United States. While wearing African attire in Leba I was never approached, as I have been in the United States, by feeble-minded individuals who make such inane statements as, “My ancestors owned your ancestors at one time and we could have the same name.” While I encountered the blank stares and heightened curiosities of children in Leba, not once did I suffer the shrieking fear of a child frightened by my presence or the clutching of handbags as I am often subjected to at “home.”
We live in an age where people seek therapy and question almost every facet of their interpersonal relationships. People engage in group discussions on co-dependence, dysfunctional family dynamics and are even willing to explore the emotional well-being of their pets. The one issue that has the ability to paralyze intellect and give rise to insurmountable levels of denial is the pathology of racism. Getting people to explore their intrapersonal/interpersonal connections to the disease of racism has been an impediment to this nation’s growth since its inception. It was W. E. B. Du Bois who posited in the early 1920’s “… the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” I would question if we’ve come much farther in the opening of the 21st Century. There is a discontent at having witnessed the surface of things altered over the centuries while knowing that what is beneath the surface remains the same.
While walking the streets of Leba with another professional storyteller whom I respect and admire, a Frenchman well versed in the literary history of African Americans, I mentioned my reflections on Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village.” He immediately asked, “You don’t feel like that do you?”
While there were many differences in Baldwin’s experiences in the remote Swiss village of Leukerbad and my isolation in the coastal Polish village of Leba, there were also many parallels too strong for me to ignore. It was the similarities that forced my recollection of Baldwin’s essay, an article that I had not reflected on, nor read, in decades.
My fellow storyteller was quick to remind me that, even to this day, there are small Swiss villages in the mountainous regions that have changed very little since Baldwin’s visit. He recounted a time when, as a stranger, he was looked upon with suspicion and mistrust. What my friend was describing to me as his experiences in a remote Swiss village were more xenophobic than racist in nature. The continuous rebuttals, by even the most well intentioned of people, are constant reminders of racism’s need to negate and, even trivialize, the uniqueness of my narrative.
While the physical subjugation may have ended a little more than a century ago, the pervasive and aggressive assault on the mind continues. The sad fact of the matter is that there are large numbers of people who are not even aware that a war is being waged. The issue that plagued Harriet Tubman in her era still haunts the hearts of the conscious today. She put it quite simply when she said, “I could have saved so many more if I could have convinced them they was slaves.”
I don’t view my recollections of Baldwin’s essay during my stay in Leba as mere happenstances of thought. There is a legacy that I, and many others, deem of vital importance. There is a memory that must be maintained if social, political and economic progress is to be attained by a greater number of the disenfranchised. Baldwin is often quoted as having stated, “Color is not a personal or human reality, it is a political reality.” I would add to Baldwin’s progressive insight that it is a social and economic reality as well; one that has the potential to be as destructive a force in the 21st Century as it has already shown itself to be in the past.