American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin once said of writing “You write in order to change the world. If you alter, even by a millimetre, the way people look at reality, then you can change it”. When I first read those words I added them as footnote in my email account, so that I could never forget. These words have also served as some kind of an anchor, as if James Baldwin himself was mentoring me from his grave. And this was just so I could get through the day working as a radio reporter at the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). And not mind you, as a bona fide writer, just as someone who was wishing for something more meaningful to come out of her words. I wrote with hope. Trusting that one day I could be brave enough to do what was an impossible feat for me, become a published, authentic, writer.
These words stopped me from sinking, from being taken by the winds, however strong, fierce and biting they sometimes were. Even when I had fallen, a million times over, intoxicated by too many conflicting emotions, I managed to stand again. The words allowed me to dream, to imagine that I could one day write something that could change the world. Not always in phenomenal or cataclysmic ways, but in small incremental ways, a millimetre at a time.
Each time I found myself gripped by the cold embrace of fear, wondering why I even imagined that writing is a good idea, when the answers to all my whys were answered in silence, when in the mist of doubt my eyes clouded and seemed to evaporate like a ghost or mythical creature, dismembered from my limbs and core to eventually fade into nothing with the nothings that float endlessly between the air we breathe. When I start to look for another job, or something else which seems less brutal, which does not demand all of me, which does not ask me to always stand stark naked in front of you and expose all that is hidden to the human eye, when I start to search for something more calmer than this vacuous chattering presence of multinational words too frightening to utter, when I start to look for ways to make money profitable, when I start to doubt my intentions, the reasons I write. When I feel blocked, when the noise inside myself is too loud or I am simply left paralysed, unable to string words together or see the significance of anything I do, especially my numerous attempts at writing something worth reading. I remember that the words I’m about to write don’t have to win a Pulitzer or trend on twitter. Just a millimetre at a time, just one honest word, here or there. A different viewpoint, another perspective. That’s enough to create change.
These 26 words.
More than any other words I have read by James Baldwin in all his books and essays stayed with me. I loved their simplicity. Their tenacity. Their ability to make the impossible possible, and the possible impossible. All of these big and small things wrapped in one fluid sentence. I had hoped that I would one day grow up to write words that could be just as profound. Baldwin’s words gave me a noble reason to continue writing. The answer to my why. They also gave me the how. “if you can alter, even by a millimetre”, now you have to understand how small a millimetre is compared to the vastness of mother earth: When that realization dawned on me, I was overcome with a sense of humility. I was humbled by my own insignificance. But then he pulls you out of insignificance in the same line and reminds you again that even in the smallest of actions change is always possible “…if you can alter, even by a milimetre, the way people see reality, then you can change it.” It being the world of course. Baldwin changed my world. When I was about to quit – he said you need just a millimetre, nothing more. Imagine the power these words contain. They leave no room for doubt or self-flagellating thoughts or narcissistic hallucinations of grandeur. They are in fact – balanced. Perhaps I felt the same way about these words as mathematicians do when they discover a beautiful equation. Such as the most famous one E=MCsquared.
Just Ten Words.
So I thought I had found the most beautiful equation with James Baldwin’s 26 words – until I opened a book by Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo (74). Her words were not part of her collection of short stories in a book called “No Sweetness Here”. They were simply a dedication. “For those without whom living would have been almost impossible”. Ten words. Just. These words were like Joules to me. They opened wide the door of gratitude, which was so phenomenal it was almost inconceivable for me to imagine that a human – living -being could have been so in tune with the source of life, or life force that they were able to transmit so much energy in just ten words. The more I meditated on these words, the more gratitude I felt. The more I realized how profound they were. The more I was balled over by gratitude to the known and unknown humans who gave me bread, walked next to me when I was lonely, gave me a shoulder to cry on when I didn’t even know that I needed one. Every single human, plant and animal that makes it possible for me to live today, to write, to breathe and be whatever. I became less concerned with change and became saturated with an immense sense gratitude for life itself, such as I have never felt before. I was changed in that instant. Those simple words, ten of them out of a hundred thousand more she has written, were like a beautiful mathematical equation for me. An integer – a sentence complete in itself.
They are African. They are Ubuntu. They are about knowing that nothing and no one can exist without the other(s). They are about connection and energy. Perhaps I do not at this stage, have the tools with which to transform Ama ata Aidoos’ words into a beautiful mathematical equation, however, I do think that they are in fact, when viewed philosophically, equivalent to Einsteins’ theory of relativity in which mass and energy are manifestations of the same thing. She writes atomic words. Four decades of writing reduced to a simple yet profound equation “For those without whom living would have been almost impossible”
I’m surprised she hasn’t won a Nobel Prize for literature. Words like that can change the world. They’ve certainly changed mine. To say she’s a genius would not be hyperbolic in the least.
Picture Credit: Kobina Graham