|James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union debate|
That was Hansberry’s view of her depression and it mirrors my own. Depression is a relentless beast that, when it doesn’t have you in its claws, can be sensed behind you, ready to pounce.
The best thing I have going for me in life is a plethora of distractions available. Films are a distraction, sports can be a distraction, the company of others, particularly children. Work keeps the depression at bay. Sometimes a TV show or something of interest on the internet will do the trick. But none of these are solutions, they are like pain killers that eventually wear off.
The best of these distractions is vigorous exercise. It not only distracts while I’m doing them but it keeps the depression at bay for hours after as I bask in the glow of released endorphins.
I am pessimistic about the future of my depression. I’ve accepted that it is one of my life partners. I doubt that a sudden financial windfall or publication of one of my novels would do more than provide temporary relief. Part of the problem is that I’m about to turn 66. Physically I’m in great shape for a person of any age and although I’ve begun to be a bit more forgetful, my mental faculties are okay — for now. But time does march on and there’s no telling if I’ll still be in full vigor 20 years from now, let alone whether I’ll still be a sentient being. These matters can wear on a person. My father lived 91 healthy years until a freak fall caused irreparable damage. Maybe if I avoid such a fall I can hit the century mark. I’m not betting on it. Actually, why not a wager? If I lose, good luck collecting.
There are, of course, many thing for even the happiest person to get depressed about. Here are some examples: global warming, Donald Trump, possible interference in the 2020 US elections, Trump’s rabid supporters, nationalism, anti-vaxxers, the proliferation of fast food, the concentration of wealth among the richest 1%, politicians who have been bought (admittedly, most of them), cell phone addiction and goodness me the list could go on and on. I’d be remiss if I did not here add that there are reasons aplenty for great optimism and hope for our future. Many people all over the world are fighting the good fight and in the end that’s all you can do. That’s also what you have to do. Giving into despair will not do the job, believing in your cause and your compatriots and taking steps everyday are key to peace of mind and the possibility of victory.
Last weekend I completed a fantastic book called The Fire Upon Us by Nicholas Buccola. Its centerpiece is the debate on Civil Rights between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union in February 1965. Of course there is far more to it than who said what and how people reacted. The bulk of the book is about the two men’s lives leading up to the event, including their childhood and early successes. Here you have two Americans, born around the same time, who could have hardly come from more different backgrounds and have developed more divergent philosophies. People on the left, sickened by Trump and his minions, long for the days when conservatives were like Buckley which is to say rational, civil and articulate. Surely, they say, Buckley would not tolerate — as George Will and Bill Kristol haven’t — the likes of Trump today. I agree with this notion and do miss conservatives with whom you could have a dialogue with, but Fire has convinced me that Buckley is no one to be championed no matter how favorably he compares with the Mitch McConnells of the world. The Buckley we meet was appalled by the virulent racists — ala Bull Connor — who reviled and beat Blacks. But Buckley was an ardent supporter of the mechanisms that help create and maintain institutionalized racism and a strong opponent of the Civil Rights Movement or any other attempts to dismantle racist institutions. I don’t think Buckley hated African Americans, but he was surely no friend to them and was hopelessly ignorant of their struggles or those of anyone below the upper middle class. He came from entitled money and it permeated his world view.
Baldwin, on the other hand, solidifies his place as an American hero in Fire. We see a person of imperfections (as are all of us) but one who was unmatched as an intellectual or writer. The debate is by no means the highlight of the book and serves mostly as its reason for being, a focal point. Fire recalls a time, a struggle, two significant figures and a rapidly changing society. One small flaw in the book which pulsates like the proverbial sore thumb is when author references the assassination of John F. Kennedy and gratuitously goes on to say that Kennedy was slain by Lee Harvey Oswald and him only. It’s mind boggling that anyone would believe that Oswald acted alone (if he acted at all) and its stupefying that he went out of his way to repeat the canard when it was not relevant to the rest of the book. Weird.
You can find the debate on YouTube.
Now I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' first novel The Water Dancer, just recently published, and if I later choose to write about it here I’ll most likely be heaping it with praise. I’m about 130 pages into it and am enjoying it.
*For those of you who unfamiliar with Lorraine Hansberry, she was a playwright and author who was the first African American female to have a play performed on Broadway. You may have heard of it — A Raisin in the Sun. She also wrote openly about her homosexuality, a rare thing for her time. She lived from 1930-1965, dying from pancreatic cancer.