I am grateful to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s for bringing James Baldwin back to us. Just this week, I took my copy of The Fire Next Time,, with its browning and brittle pages, down from the bookshelf. I bought it in 1964, my senior year in college, and underlined almost every word. Each sentence is still shocking, strange, and resonant at the same time. I knew nothing about growing up in Harlem at the time but felt passionately, as he did, that I did not want American culture to define me.
Baldwin tells us that his father was “defeated long before he died because at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” When white people called him “nigger,” it was unforgivable. But when he internalized their view and became invisible, even to himself, a man without an identity, that might have been worse.
Baldwin tells his nephew that “There is no reason for you to try to become like White people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.” Instead, “you must accept them and accept them…” And, by doing so, “force our brothers to see themselves as they are…”
It may be impertinent for a White man to say so but Baldwin’s cri de coeur also seems like a perfect battle cry for those of us who are aging: to force our younger brothers and sisters to see us as we are and, by doing so, to see themselves as they are.
American society wants old people to be young, which is how we are portrayed in the AARP Magazine, the flagship of affirmative aging. According to the Magazine we should aspire to smooth skin and bright smiles; long hikes, sexual prowess, and working for as long as we want; to financial security and an upbeat disposition; and to ticking off the items on the bucket list we created to make up for unfulfilled lives. The degree to which we imitate young people is the degree to which we can affirm ourselves. In other words, we are enjoined to be anything but old.
While this injunction is silly on the face of it, we have absorbed it. We are complicit, especially when we try to imitate youth. In imitation we betray ourselves. By the standards of youth, we are ugly, slow witted, graceless, and impotent. We are defined, not by who we are but by our failure to be effectively young and, conversely, by an ineluctable movement towards frailty and death.
This youthful pretense magnifies our shame. We are ashamed of our forgetfulness, our lined faces and crinkly skin, our diminished muscle mass and our increased fatty tissue, and our need to be cautious in the out-of-doors. What’s more, these current ‘failings’ bring back ancient wounds. Even as youth, we weren’t always beautiful, brilliant, agile, and bold. We were taught to be ashamed then, which is now aggravated in old age.
Shame is a terrible feeling. It isn’t like guilt, which focuses on what you have done or failed to do. It speaks to your whole being. It is being unworthy, unattractive, unloved. It makes you want to crawl into a cave, to be unseen and unknown. In old age, there is nothing worse than shame.
We will do almost anything to avoid it, even try to be someone or something else, like trying to look and act young. We will cover our shame with anger, becoming the angry old men and women of satirical movies. Anger at least keeps people and shame at a distance. We will allow ourselves to be seen as adorable—nice elderly people and doting grandparents. If we don’t appear challenging, others won’t challenge us, or so we tell ourselves. We hold back much of who we are. We become withdrawn, no matter how lonely it makes us.
James Baldwin asks Black people to see themselves without the filter of White society. Ta-Nehisi Coates, his partial reincarnation, doesn’t think that’s possible and urges his son to withdraw. I am not sure if aging people can free themselves from the imagery of a youth-oriented culture. But, short of withdrawal, we have to try.
To begin, we must ask: what makes us distinctive. It is partly the losses we have incurred, physically and emotionally. We cannot deny that. If we do, we are giving in to ‘them.’ But look closely, my friends. There’s something beautiful in the experience that is written into the lines of an older face. There is something ancient, almost eternal, in the laughter when it comes forward. What about the knowing glances in response to petty conflicts that we will no longer join. What about the depth acceptance in our friendships. There is wisdom in that acceptance.
When old people study and think about new subjects, there is a vast storehouse of knowledge and experience that they draw on, whether younger people want to benefit from that knowledge or not. There is perspective and calm that lead to sound judgments. There is wisdom in these judgments. There is greater understanding that each, new sunrise is to be cherished. Not in every old person, of course. Not in as many old people as we might hope. But this is the distinctive potential of old people who affirm themselves as they are, not as the absence of youth.
Baldwin tells us that, by being ourselves, we have the capacity to help others to see themselves more clearly. Baldwin means that White people avoid themselves by externalizing their own fears and inadequacies. By focusing their contempt and anger at Black people, White people can ignore the contempt and anger they feel towards themselves. We see this in glaring form among the White Trump voters today, these defeated and abandoned men who momentarily lift their self-respect by venting their rage at immigrants, elites, and people of color.
Young people, with our complicity, do the same to us. They do not want to face their inadequacies and they do not want to know that they are human, that they, too, will grow old. They don’t want to look directly at our wrinkled skin. They spend inordinate hours trying to be beautiful because they fear being old and ugly. They don’t say ugly but they mean ugly. They don’t want to face their own future.
Our challenge is to help them to see the beauty of life through its many stages, through all of its pains and triumphs. We have the opportunity to make them less afraid, and to help them to celebrate life’s full passage. Not by preaching or teaching them directly but by being wholeheartedly ourselves.