Watson's Blog‘We‘re splinters & mosaics; not, as they used to hold, immaculate, monolithic, consistent wholes’, wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary. Are we really just a collection of “splinters and mosaics”? Welcome to my collection!!!
“It’s a mercy that time runs in one direction only, that we see the past but darkly and the future not at all.” “The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river,” Virginia Woolf wrote some years before she filled her coat-pockets…
When does writing begin? The act of committing the first words to a page—as I am doing now—is cited for its difficulty. Though those words might well be deleted from the final draft, the resistance of the blank page is justifiably famous. It’s an entrance to the unknowable, like the doorway on your first school-going day as a child. Once you’ve gone through, you’re in a different domain; you’re in the story, which involves inhabiting a new space and a new self. Before going in, you stare at the lit doorway of the blank page, partly with anxiety and partly with exhaustion. Exhaustion because the blank page is not only the beginning but the end of something. It’s the end of the hours or days or months you’ve spent considering both the subject and the prospect of writing about it. Arriving at the blank page represents our coming to the end of the undecided space we call living. Now we must get down to telling.
I experience this sense of loss as I put down the first word—the loss of the procrastination and the freedom to not do that for me are synonymous with life—yet I feel I must question this model by which we determine at which precise moment we start to write. The question might be particularly pertinent to me, who frequently returns—according to some—to my life as a subject. When did I decide, I’m asked, that I would write about an uncle in my next novel, or a cousin or the Calcutta I used to visit in my childhood or the Oxford of my student days? But, prior to this, surely another moment occurs: the realization that my uncle was extraordinary in a way that could be written about. Subsequent to this comes the idea of formulating a story in which he’s a character, after which comes, eventually, the act of putting the first words about him or where he lived on the page.
Naipaul calls this transition the “discovery of one’s material,” the difficult transition a writer must make from a passionate apprenticeship in literature to annexing an imaginary world that’s their own. After this—I would hazard—the matter of success begins to become, oddly, irrelevant in a way that it wasn’t before. The apprentice reads great literature and wants to produce it; his work must, then, carry the stylistic marks and the themes of what’s been approved as literary. However, at a certain juncture, the apprentice may find he wants, inexplicably, to write about his uncle. He hesitates: he isn’t sure if his uncle is a legitimate subject for literature. We grow up with mythic heroes, and uncles don’t generally adhere to a definition of the heroic. Surely novels need to tackle themes and conflicts that are significant according to a critical consensus. Finally, he sets aside his disquiet. This is how writing begins.
I’ve written at least twice about my uncles (I use “uncles” literally but also as a shorthand for whatever I once thought unfit for serious literature). The first time was in my first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address. The last was in my sixth, Odysseus Abroad. On both occasions, these uncles re-presented themselves to my imagination through a process that can only be called translation. That is, I found they were already extant in other books. I encountered one of my uncles when reading Sons and Lovers as an undergraduate in London. Reading of Walter Morel’s life-loving expansiveness and the way he whistled doing odd jobs, I felt my uncle’s proximity. This wasn’t a fully formed thought; it was an unexpected recognition of the familiar. Later, I discovered he was in other books, too: A House for Mr Biswas, for example. To discover them was, in a sense, to be involved in translation. I didn’t have to remember him—reading became a form of imagining his world: reading was the beginning of writing.
Odysseus Abroad was, years later, the outcome of a confluence of confused identities. In 2001, for the first time in my life, I bought a painting: a charcoal sketch, really. It was by an artist whose work I loved: F N Souza. He’d been living in self-imposed obscurity in New York and had come to Calcutta, just a year before his death, to exhibit in a gallery. The prices, given Souza’s reputation, were staggeringly low—I bought the sketch for fifty-five thousand rupees (a little more than eight hundred dollars $, using the conversion rates of today). An uncle who was unmarried and who, despite being a shipping executive, had lived in a bedsit in London for thirty years had then retired and was in Calcutta, spending most of his time doing nothing in his brother’s home. It was I who’d urged him to return to India in 1991 to attend my wedding. Since then he’d gone back to London for only brief periods. One afternoon, he came to my flat, unannounced, and challenged me: “I hear you’ve bought a painting for fifty-five thousand rupees?” I took him to where it hung in the drawing room: a charcoal sketch of the head of a man made up of wild lines and intermittent smudges. “You may as well have paid me fifty-five thousand rupees for farting,” said my uncle. “But this is a great picture!” I protested. ‘And the man in it looks a bit like you, doesn’t he?’ “Granted,” my uncle replied, “that the work of an idiot and the work of a genius look very alike.” So saying, he went off. I stood there, assessing my purchase and the resemblance of the man in it to the man who’d derided it. I recalled suddenly that Souza had called the sketch “Ulysses.” It came to me: was not my uncle a bit of an Odysseus-like figure? He was a wanderer. He owned no property. Could I write a book in which he played Odysseus? The thought—the “translation”—occurred that afternoon. It took a decade (the period of Odysseus’s travels) for the consequences of the idea to fall into place, and me to begin the novel.
When does writing really start? Convention tells us that it’s when we commit the first word or sentence to the page; put pen to paper, as I still do. The lead-up to this moment comprises memory, receptivity, and the transmutation—the fission—that turns intangible thoughts and images into words and story. You experience things; you live; from these experiences you produce writing. Today, for me, I feel this model holds less and less true. Since I’m writing about my life so often—or rather, of life in general as I know it—I find it increasingly difficult to demarcate the life I live within the book from the life I live outside it; the writing I do with words from the writing I do without words. Writing is an unpremeditated awareness of something coming into existence. Many things become part of the aura of possibility we call “writing”—the street one is walking on; a balcony with a man in it; sounds from a neighboring street. To produce a book containing that street or balcony constitutes only a part of what writing is. Writing spills over from the book, into a domain where there are no words, only a consciousness that something has happened. What has happened is not an event; it’s writing, which can begin at any point of time, in that any moment is a moment of possibility.
Let me give an example. Many of us buy books for different reasons—we’ve heard of the author or of a particular novel; it has won a prize; the book is on the curriculum (there’s a curriculum even after we leave school, and we obediently get what’s on it). Or it could be that we’re drawn to the title, or are absorbed by the book’s jacket. It could be a combination of all or some of these reasons. The number of books we buy far outnumber those we read. Again, the reasons for not reading are multiple—deferral, because of the paucity of time, is a common one. But a powerful cause for not reading is because the writer in us—I use the word “writer” not for one who’s produced books, but for whoever is possessed by the possibility of writing—takes over from the reader. This might happen when we’re transfixed by the jacket and keep studying it, unable to proceed to the first page. The image on the cover, its design, the lettering – these have thrown us into the realm of possibility. Once we’ve entered the story which that possibility engenders, reading the novel itself becomes redundant. We may not write a word, but the writer in us predominates. A version of the novel emerging from the jacket—or even the title—holds us in its spell. That’s why the crowd of unread books on our shelves is never, generally, a burden. They signal a possibility—not that we will one day read them, but of how the idea, and moment, of writing is constantly with us.
This is the fifth installment of Amit Chaudhuri’s column, The Moment.
Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist, essayist, poet, and musician. His most recent novel is Friend of My Youth
I’m not sure exactly how many nested layers there are to Lydia Davis’s short story “Happiest Moment.” Sometimes I count as many as nine frames to the tale, sometimes only four or five. Sometimes the story seems its own discrete entity. A matryoshka doll could look like one thing or lots of things, I guess, […]
In 2013, actor Paul Walker died in a car-crash halfway through the filming of Furious 7. Universal was left with a tough decision: stop the production of a hugely profitable movie franchise — or find a way to carry on. Could they recreate Paul’s face digitally?
They approached Hao Li, a computer scientist, currently a professor at the University of Southern California and CEO of Pinscreen, a startup focused on creating 3D avatars. He cut his teeth at Industrial Light and Magic devising new real-time facial capture approaches to CGI. Working with Hao and their in-house visual effects experts, they were able to continue filming, using Walker’s brothers as stand-ins. They were physically similar, so they digitally recreated Paul’s face and seamlessly matched it onto those of his brothers in post.
It worked like a treat and went on to become the sixth highest-grossing film of all time.
Hao came out of that with a new Hollywood-focused objective that he wanted to explore in his research at USC: How do you speed and scale the creation of digital humans?
His approach was to use deep learning, applied to computer graphics, using 3D scans and photographs as the training data. “One of the aims was: How can we make movies look better?” Hao says. “But as time progressed, it became clear that there would be more interesting applications in the emerging worlds of virtual and augmented reality, which need 3D models for immersive storytelling, communication, and social media.” Hao and his colleagues at Pinscreen started working on photoreal human beings and scaling these technologies to smartphones.
“Now we can do things automatically, using algorithms, that it used to take entire VFX [visual effects] departments to do. What in the past decade would have taken up too much computer processing, you can now do on your mobile phone, and development is happening at an exponential rate.”
As Facebook and iPhone collect more data, artificial intelligence experts started to develop deep neural networks to learn how to do complicated things such as turning an old photograph of a person into a compelling 3D model. Given enough data (in this case a vast supply of photos), processing power and time, you can write a program inspired by the way the human brain is structured that will learn to accurately identify from a 2D picture, what that face would look like from different angles, and then to build that model.
I instinctively love the idea that we can create 3D versions of historical figures since it opens up a world of opportunity to engage audiences in history, science, and archaeology in new and exciting ways.
Some years ago there was a debate in the documentary industry about whether colourising black-and-white film was acceptable, since that was modifying the source and to do that would be to challenge the very nature of what constitutes a documentary. Increased ratings meant the colourisers won that argument. Nonetheless, it’s still controversial enough that Peter Jackson hit the headlines when he used Hollywood techniques developed in Lord of the Rings to create 2D and 3D colourised renditions of World War I from archive sources. He justified this approach in a January 18 interview in BBC’s Today show: “They didn’t fight the war in black and white…. It gives a true reflection of what the soldiers saw.”
Who owns our depictions?
But if this gives us pause for thought, fully digitising humans places us at a more significant juncture. Once you scan something into a computer, it becomes a digital asset that you can manipulate in all sorts of ways. But what does it mean if that source is or was a human being?
I wanted to know what a documentary creator who has worked with digitised humans thought. Gabo Arora has worked with a Holocaust survivor in The Last Goodbye, where the need for authenticity is paramount, given the claim of certain fringe groups that the Holocaust never happened.
“When the second wave of VR first happened, and we started to make films for UNICEF using 360 video, you would hear people saying, ‘You can just put the camera there and show people what it’s like.’ But I never really believed that,” says Arora. “I do recognise that for future generations, there is a need for testimony to provide first-person accounts — I was there, that happened to me — and now we have the ability to take you there, to meet that person. I wanted to put this into practice with The Shoah Foundation, to make The Last Goodbye, to go back to a concentration camp with a Holocaust survivor who can tell us what happened to him and his family there. But would we make something that people might say: ‘You manipulated that?’ ”
The Last Goodbye is a room-scale VR documentary in which you visit the Majdanek concentration camp with Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter, who becomes your guide, telling you what happened to him and his family there. Pinchas is 3D, created using volumetric capture, a process for digitising humans using an array of cameras capturing his interview in high resolution and rendering him as a digital asset that can be imported into VR. You are able to visit areas of the camp with him via photogrammetry — thousands of photographs are taken of the camp and these are stitched together to create a photorealistic 3D environment that you can walk around in. Surely, documentary has never been so real.
“At first I suggested that we do the volumetric capture of Pinchas in Toronto, his home-town. But the Shoah Foundation said no. It was of extreme importance to them that it happened there at Majdanek and that this was verified and certified and kept on record, in order to remain as true-to-life as possible. But, nonetheless, we were making a documentary and with that goes some artifice: we painted out certain lights, museum signs and sounds; we colour-corrected to hide some of the ugliness of photogrammetry; we used fades and music,” Arora says.
“Photos lied from the outset,” he observes. “‘Errol Morris explores this brilliantly.’” In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morris reflects on two photos of the Crimean War taken by photojournalist Roger Fenton at the same spot. One had considerably more cannonballs in the road than the other.
Morris questions whether the original photo had been manipulated to seem more dramatic. “We all know that staging is that big no-no in photography. I would call it a fantasy that we can create some photographic truth by not moving anything, not touching anything, not interacting with the scene that we’re photographing in any way.”
One hundred and fifty years after Abraham Lincoln became the first president of the United States to be photographed, it was discovered that his head had been transposed in his most famous portrait.
“What we need most is critical thinking,” says Arora. “Susan Sontag said, ‘It’s passivity that dulls feeling.’ In immersive media we can create work that is anything but passive. Without imagination there is no empathy. What can we build with art and storytelling? The First World War was brought home through photography, the Vietnam War through TV, Syria through YouTube and Black Lives Matter through Facebook Live. Will the next conflict be covered in VR?”
The Montreal agency Dpt. has also been bringing conflict home through digitising humans in their work on Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy. They have created an augmented reality application that allows me to introduce people from opposing sides of intractable conflicts into my living room (iOS and Android versions of which are available for free wherever you get your apps). I fire it up and Gilad, a soldier from the Israeli Defense Force is standing in my lounge. He is 3D and the same size as me and seems to follow me with his eyes. As I walk towards him I hear him talking about who he thinks the enemy is. I walk around behind him and see Abu Khaled, a Palestinian fighter, on the other side of the room.
As I also hear from him I realise that they are both saying more or less the same things. “There is something very powerful about inviting these people into your personal space,” says Nicolas Roy, Creative Director of Dpt. “It’s literally bringing this conflict home to you and that was very important to us. There is something unique about AR in that it writes itself into your environment. Long after the experience you still remember these people as having inhabited that space — their presence lingers there. It is subject to abuse, though — you could place them somewhere completely inappropriate and take a photo of that. As far as I know, no one has done that. But there is nothing we could do to prevent it.”
New ethical quandaries
Meanwhile, Hao’s research has been coming on in leaps and bounds. He found out how to get the neural network to look at footage of people talking and use 3D tracking to understand their facial expressions. “When I map that onto my face I can drive their facial expressions. You composite it and I become them.”
He tells me about the voice-driven facial manipulation technology pioneered by Supasorn Suwajanakorn at the University of Washington. A neural network analyses hours of video footage of someone speaking (e.g. Obama) in order to match audio input with mouth-shape and texture, ultimately allowing you to literally put words into someone else’s mouth.
“You can go home and talk to your dead mother—because the technology exists for that,” Hao explains, leaving me feeling decidedly queasy. Is that honouring the dead? Right now I would instinctively say no — but, who knows, maybe in ten years that will be the new normal.
It occurs to me that this could be quite liberating in the use of on-air talent. A TV presenter can be scanned to become a digital asset, then you can use the same person in multiple languages. Actually you can use them an infinite number of times — you won’t need the actual person any more. We can write a tight contract, grab them while they are young, scan them once and have them for life — and longer.
More significantly, you put all of this together and you can make living and historical figures into puppets, making them say things they never said, and it would look real.
Hao recognises some of the ethical problems this raises. “The downside is that I can generate a photorealistic digital Trump— indistinguishable from the real thing—on my iPhone, and get him to declare nuclear war on North Korea.”
While this is still a little rough around the edges, the tech is developing at super-high speed — very soon it will look perfect.
“The thing is to get it out there and educate people — show them what’s possible — so that we can plan for it and create a safer environment,” says Hao. “Having a system and a framework will be the best way. Maybe we need to develop a blockchain mechanism for verification.”
Nonny de la Peña is a journalist who has pioneered the use of digital humans in her genre-defining work. She sees the problem as wider and more fundamental: a breakdown of trust between the public and major institutions, including the press. “We need to rebuild trust to debunk false news. There have been institutional failings. It’s time to set a new global standard.” She has joined the Knight Foundation’s new commission on Trust, Media and Democracy to help define the future of journalism in the era of fakery.
This is a great start. We urgently need sophisticated tools to authenticate what is trustworthy. Currently the tech that allows fakery is ten steps ahead of any tech that can detect it. In the wrong hands things can get out of control very quickly. And we know from bitter experience that there are very sophisticated agents, from corporations to countries, looking for any means to manipulate us.
The opportunities opening up for documentary creators to use this technology are very exciting, and the step-change could be as big as from radio to TV. But they steer us steadily into a less authentic universe and a world that we will struggle to recognise. Once a human has become a digital asset, you can easily manipulate them. We already think we have a problem with fake news. How will we contend with fake history?
We need a new definition of human value in media and a new definition of what a documentary is. We are being presented with one of the greatest challenges to journalism and documentary that we have yet faced: How can we redefine our craft when we can no longer tell truth from fiction?
Immerse is an initiative of Tribeca Film Institute, MIT Open DocLab and The Fledgling Fund. Learn more about our vision for the project here.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, fifty years ago this April, marked a blow to the struggle for racial equality from which the nation has still not healed. In an essay published in Esquire in April 1972, James Baldwin reflected on attending the funeral, and how King’s death signaled the end of civility for the civil-rights movement. At turns heartbreaking and hopeful, Baldwin’s words are as powerful—and urgent—as ever.
An Introduction By Michael Eric Dyson
On April 9, 1968, thirteen hundred people filed into Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the private funeral of a man who, like his father before him, had once served as its pastor: the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Attendees included Thurgood Marshall, Wilt Chamberlain, Marlon Brando, Dizzy Gillespie, Stokely Carmichael, and Robert F. Kennedy, who’d be killed less than two months later. The choir, 160 strong, sang sorrowful hymns. Ralph David Abernathy, cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, officiated. A lone singer performed a devastating rendition of “My Father Watches Over Me.” But the most memorable speaker that morning—a haunting baritone piped out of tinny speakers that left his four children startled—was King himself.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral,” King pleaded posthumously in a recording from his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon given two months earlier and played at the behest of his widow, Coretta. He didn’t get his wish: The service lasted two hours, followed by a public, nationally broadcast funeral held that afternoon at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. Such pageantry was a too-familiar vessel into which black pain was stuffed at moments like this, moments when suffering made no sense, moments for which we had no words. Yet the writer—especially one whose fiery style was forged in the pulpit of his church-bound boyhood—must have words. In “Malcolm and Martin,” as the essay was titled, James Baldwin recalled King’s funeral “the most real church service I’ve ever sat through in my life” and then grappled with the national undoing set loose by his death. Baldwin knew that America could survive only if it underwent an extraordinary social transformation—equality for all, hatred for none—that echoed the most noble ideals set out by our founding fathers. (That is, when they set aside their blinding bigotry.) But he also knew that King’s death, and Malcolm X’s in 1965, were signs the nation refused to acknowledge that the key to its salvation was held by those very people whom it had enslaved. The former quickly embraced pacifism; the latter was an advocate for black freedom at any cost. But the daily battles took a toll on both men, and their views had begun to converge—Malcolm mellowed; Martin grew more radical—so that, as Baldwin wrote, “by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them.” Not that the country much cared about the particulars; the American experiment had once again bet against its redemption by black moral genius and lost.
America, Baldwin believed, was split in two—not between North and South but between the powerful and the disenfranchised. Racism, that scourge that beclouded our democracy, remained—remains—the nation’s greatest peril. But the powerful maintained the status quo by sowing discord among the disenfranchised. Poor white folk, rather than uniting with their socioeconomically oppressed brothers and sisters against the rich, trained their targets on poor black folk. They channeled their anxieties into a vengeance against blackness.
In this way, Baldwin predicted the forces that would one day lead to the return of xenophobic white nationalism, to the rise of Donald Trump. But to say Baldwin was ahead of his time is to miss his point: America will always need a prophet—a Malcolm, a Martin. The powerful will always seek to silence that prophet, instead trying to achieve the nation’s redemption on the cheap—not through self- correction but through crimson-stained violence that sacrifices the Other, whether black or brown or queer or immigrant. Fifty years after one lone prophet who didn’t make it to forty gave up the ghost on a bland balcony in Memphis, this essay is proof that King’s legacy, and Baldwin’s words, remain vital.
Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make—indeed, I can see that a great deal of what the knowledgeable would call my life-style is dictated by this reluctance. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up and condemn, forever, those descendants of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans. The mind is a strange and terrible vehicle, moving according to rigorous rules of its own; and my own mind, after I had left Atlanta, began to move backward in time, to places, people, and events I thought I had forgotten. Sorrow drove it there, I think, sorrow, and a certain kind of bewilderment, triggered, perhaps, by something which happened to me in connection with Martin’s funeral.
King at a press conference in Birmingham, 1963.
When Martin was murdered, I was based in Hollywood, working—working, in fact, on the screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was a difficult assignment, since I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable at all, from love.
There is a day in Palm Springs, shortly before I left there, that I will remember forever, a bright day. Billy Dee Williams had come to town, and he was staying at the house; and a lot of the day had been spent with a very bright, young lady reporter, who was interviewing me about the film version of Malcolm. I felt very confident that day—I was never to feel so confident again—and I talked very freely to the reporter. (Too freely, the producer was to tell me later.) I had decided to lay my cards on the table and to state, as clearly as I could, what I felt the movie was about, and how I intended to handle it. I thought that this might make things simpler later on, but I was wrong about that. The studio and I were at loggerheads, really, from the moment I stepped off the plane. Anyway, I had opted for candor, or a reasonable facsimile of same, and sounded as though I were in charge of the film, as, indeed, by my lights, for that moment, certainly, I had to be. I was really in a difficult position because both by temperament and experience I tend to work alone, and I dread making announcements concerning my work. But I was in a very public position, and I thought that I had better make my own announcements, rather than have them made for me. The studio, on the other hand, did not want me making announcements of any kind at all. So there we were, and this particular tension, since it got to the bloody heart of the matter—the question of by whose vision, precisely, this film was to be controlled—was not to be resolved until I finally threw up my hands and walked away.
I very much wanted Billy Dee for Malcolm, and since no one else had any other ideas, I didn’t see why this couldn’t work out. In brutal Hollywood terms, Poitier is the only really big, black, box-office star, and this fact gave me, as I considered it, a free hand. To tell the bitter truth, from the very first days we discussed it, I had never had any intention of allowing the Columbia brass to cast this part: I was determined to take my name off the production if I were overruled. Call this bone- headed stupidity, or insufferable arrogance or what you will—I had made my decision, and once I had made it nothing could make me waver, and nothing could make me alter it. If there were errors in my concept of the film, and if I made errors on the way to and in the execution, well, then, I would have to pay for my errors. But one can learn from one’s errors. What one cannot survive is allowing other people to make your errors for you, discarding your own vision, in which at least you believe, for someone else’s vision, in which you do not believe. Anyway, all that shit had yet to hit the fan. This day, the girl and Billy and I had a few drinks by the swimming pool. The man, Walter, was about to begin preparing supper. The girl got up to leave and we walked her to her car and came back to the swimming pool, jubilant.
The phone had been brought out to the pool, and now it rang. Billy was on the other side of the pool, doing what I took to be African improvisations to the sound of Aretha Franklin. And I picked up the phone.
It was David Moses. It took a while before the sound of his voice—I don’t mean the sound of his voice, something in his voice—got through to me.
He said, “Jimmy? Martin’s just been shot,” and I don’t think I said anything, or felt anything. I’m not sure I knew who Martin was. Yet, though I know—or I think—the record player was still playing, silence fell. David said, “He’s not dead yet”—then I knew who Martin was—“but it’s a head wound—so—”
Top, left: Members of the press corps stand on a crane-held platform to better photograph King’s casket at Morehouse. Top, right: Coretta King and Harry Belafonte at the service. Middle: A small group of the more than 150,000 people who lined the four-mile stretch from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Morehouse College, where a public ceremony was held. Bottom, left: Coretta King consoles their daughter Bernice. Bottom, right: James Baldwin and Marlon Brando.
I don’t remember what I said; obviously I must have said something. Billy and Walter were watching me. I told them what David had said.
I hardly remember the rest of that evening at all, it’s retired into some deep cavern in my mind. We must have turned on the television set if we had one, I don’t remember. But we must have had one. I remember weeping, briefly, more in helpless rage than in sorrow, and Billy trying to comfort me. But I really don’t remember that evening at all. Later, Walter told me that a car had prowled around the house all night.
I went to Atlanta alone, I do not remember why. I wore the suit I had bought for my Carnegie Hall appearance with Martin. I seem to have had the foresight to have reserved a hotel room, for I vaguely remember stopping in the hotel and talking to two or three preacher-type-looking men, and we started off in the direction of the church. We had not got far before it became very clear that we would never get anywhere near it. We went in this direction and then in that direction, but the press of people choked us off. I began to wish that I had not come incognito and alone, for now that I was in Atlanta I wanted to get inside the church. I lost my companions, and sort of squeezed my way, inch by inch, closer to the church. But directly between me and the church there was an impassable wall of people. Squeezing my way up to this point, I had considered myself lucky to be small; but now my size worked against me for, though there were people on the church steps who knew me, whom I knew, they could not possibly see me, and I could not shout. I squeezed a few more inches, and asked a very big man ahead of me please to let me through. He moved and said, “Yeah. Let me see you get through this big Cadillac.” It was true—there it was, smack in front of me, big as a house. I saw Jim Brown at a distance, but he didn’t see me. I leaned up on the car, making frantic signals, and finally someone on the church steps did see me and came to the car and sort of lifted me over. I talked to Jim Brown for a minute, and then somebody led me into the church and I sat down.
Esquire’s October 1968 cover captures the fatal outlook of a country rocked by a half-decade of assassinations.
The church was packed, of course, incredibly so. Far in the front, I saw Harry Belafonte sitting next to Coretta King. Ralph David Abernathy sat in the pulpit. I remembered him from years ago, sitting in his shirt-sleeves in the house in Montgomery, big, black, and cheerful, pouring some cool, soft drink, and, later, getting me settled in a nearby hotel. In the pew directly before me sat Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Eartha Kitt—covered in black, looking like a lost, ten-year-old girl—and Sidney Poitier, in the same pew, or nearby. Marlon saw me, and nodded. The atmosphere was black, with a tension indescribable—as though something, perhaps the heavens, perhaps the earth, might crack. Everyone sat very still. The actual service sort of washed over me, in waves. It wasn’t that it seemed unreal; it was the most real church service I’ve ever sat through in my life, or ever hope to sit through; but I have a childhood hangover thing about not weeping in public, and I was concentrating on holding myself together. I did not want to weep for Martin, tears seemed futile. But I may also have been afraid, and I could not have been the only one, that if I began to weep I would not be able to stop. There was more than enough to weep for, if one was to weep—so many of us, cut down, so soon. Medgar, Malcolm, Martin: and their widows, and their children. Reverend Ralph David Abernathy asked a certain sister to sing a song which Martin had loved—“Once more,” said Ralph David, “for Martin and for me,” and he sat down.
The long, dark sister, whose name I do not remember, rose, very beautiful in her robes, and in her covered grief, and began to sing. It was a song I knew: My Father Watches Over Me. The song rang out as it might have over dark fields, long ago, she was singing of a covenant a people had made, long ago, with life, and with that larger life which ends in revelation and which moves in love.
He guides the eagle through the pathless air.
She stood there, and she sang it. How she bore it, I do not know, I think I have never seen a face quite like that face that afternoon. She was singing it for Martin, and for us.
And surely He
My heav’nly Father watches over me.
At last, we were standing, and filing out, to walk behind Martin home. I found myself between Marlon and Sammy.
Top, left: In 1956, King was arrested for his involvement in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It’s unknown who scrawled the notice of death, or when. Top, right: King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people during the March on Washington in August 1963. Bottom: Newspapers around the world led with the news of King’s death. Meanwhile, riots broke out in dozens of cities throughout the country; 58,000 soldiers from the Army and the National Guard stepped in to quell the uprisings.
I had not been aware of the people when I had been pressing past them to get to the church. But, now, as we came out, and I looked up the road, I saw them. They were all along the road, on either side, they were on all the roofs, on either side. Every inch of ground, as far as the eye could see, was black with black people, and they stood in silence. It was the silence that undid me. I started to cry, and I stumbled, and Sammy grabbed my arm. We started to walk.
I don’t think that any black person can speak of Malcolm and Martin without wishing that they were here. It is not possible for me to speak of them without a sense of loss and grief and rage; and with the sense, furthermore, of having been forced to undergo an unforgivable indignity, both personal and vast. Our children need them, which is, indeed, the reason that they are not here: and now we, the blacks, must make certain that our children never forget them. For the American republic has always done everything in its power to destroy our children’s heroes, with the clear (and sometimes clearly stated) intention of destroying our children’s hope. This endeavor has doomed the American nation: mark my words.
This photo, published in Esquire’s August 1968 issue, shows mourners at King’s burial.
Malcolm and Martin, beginning at what seemed to be very different points—for brevity’s sake, we can say North and South, though, for Malcolm, South was south of the Canadian border—and espousing, or representing, very different philosophies, found that their common situation (south of the border!) so thoroughly devastated what had seemed to be mutually exclusive points of view that, by the time each met his death there was practically no difference between them. Before either had had time to think their new positions through, or, indeed, to do more than articulate them, they were murdered. Of the two, Malcolm moved swiftest (and was dead soonest), but the fates of both men were radically altered (I would say, frankly, sealed) the moment they attempted to release the black American struggle from the domestic context and relate it to the struggles of the poor and the nonwhite all over the world.
To hold this view, it is not necessary to see C. I. A. infiltrators in, or under, every black or dissenting bed: one need merely consider what the successful promulgation of this point of view would mean for American authority in the world. Slaveholders do not allow their slaves to compare notes: American slavery, until this hour, prevents any meaningful dialogue between the poor white and the black, in order to prevent the poor white from recognizing that he, too, is a slave. The contempt with which American leaders treat American blacks is very obvious; what is not so obvious is that they treat the bulk of the American people with the very same contempt. But it will be sub-zero weather in a very distant August when the American people find the guts to recognize this fact. They will recognize it only when they have exhausted every conceivable means of avoiding it.
In the meantime, in brutal fact, all of the institutions of this nation, from the schools to the courts to the unions to the prisons, and not forgetting the police, are in the hands of that white majority which has been promising for generations to ameliorate the black condition. And many white Americans would like to change the black condition, if they could see their way clear to do so, through the unutterable accumulation of neglect, sorrow, rage, despair, and continuing, overriding, totally unjustifiable death: the smoke over Attica recalls the bombs of Birmingham and the liberal Mr. Rockefeller reveals himself as being even more despicable than his openly illiberal confreres further down.
But it is not important, however irresistible, to accuse Mr. Rockefeller of anything. He is just another good American; one of the best. It is unlikely that any Western people, and certainly not the Americans, have the moral resources needed to accomplish the deep and mighty transformation which is all that can save them. Such a transformation involves unimaginable damage to the American ego; would reduce all the American religious ceremonies, including the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, to the hypocritically bloody observances many of us have always known them to be; and would shed too unsparing a light on the actual dimensions and objectives of the American character. White Americans do not want to know what many nonwhites know too well, e.g., that “foreign aid” in the “underdeveloped” countries and “anti-poverty” programs in the ghetto are simply a slightly more sophisticated version of the British policy of Divide and Rule, are, in short, simply another means of keeping a people in subjection.
Since the American people cannot, even if they wished to, bring about black liberation, and since black people want their children to live, it is very clear that we must take our children out of the hands of this so-called majority and find some way to expose this majority as the minority which it actually is in the world. For this we will need, and we will get, the help of the suffering world which is prevented only by the labyrinthine stratagems of power from adding its testimony to ours.
Baldwin’s first Esquire story ran in 1960; his ninth, and last, ran in 1980. In an interview for the July 1968 issue, conducted two days after King’s funeral, Baldwin grapples with the growing violence in the fight for equality.
No one pretends that this will be easy, and I myself do not expect to live to see this day accomplished. What both Martin and Malcolm began to see was that the nature of the American hoax had to be revealed—not only to save black people but in order to change the world in which everyone, after all, has a right to live. One may say that the articulation of this necessity was the Word’s first necessary step on its journey toward being made flesh.
And no doubt my proposition, at this hour, sounds exactly that mystical. If I were a white American, I would bear in mind that mysteries are called mysteries because we recognize in them a truth which we can barely face, or articulate. I would bear in mind that an army is no match for a ferment, and that power, however great that power may consider itself to be, gives way, and has always been forced to give way, before the onslaught of human necessity: human necessity being the fuel of history.
If my proposition sounds mystical, white people have only to consider the black people, my ancestors, whose strength and love have brought black people to this present, crucial place. If I still thought, as I did when Martin and Malcolm were still alive, that the generality of white Americans were able to hear and to learn and begin to change, I would counsel them, as vividly as I could, to attempt, now, to minimize the bill which is absolutely certain to be presented to their children. I would say: if those blacks, your slaves, my ancestors, could bring us out of nothing, from such a long way off, then, if I were you, I would pause a long while before deciding to use what you think of as your power. For we, the blacks, have not found possible what you found necessary: we have not denied our ancestors who trust us, now, to redeem their pain.
Well. Baby, that’s it. I could say, and they would both understand me: Don’t you think Bessie is proud of Aretha?
Or: Do you think that Americans can translate this sentence both out of and into the original? My soul is a witness for my Lord.
In her powerful, inspiriting poem “Amazing Peace,” Maya Angelou speaks of Christmas as “the halting of hate time.” Though she wrote the poem especially for the White House Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony back in 2005, her words are even more relevant today. How can we look “beyond complexion and see community”?
This year, and in all the years to come, let us wholeheartedly embrace the Peace of Christmas — each to each, with kindness, comfort, and compassion, lighting the way for others with the golden rule as our guiding principle. A simple tenet, yet profound and far reaching because we have the power to practice it every single day. Even when faced with the incomprehensible, we must continue to believe in the goodness of humanity. If we stand together, love, the strongest emotion a human being is capable of experiencing, will prevail.
“Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.”
After six years of blogging, I’ve compiled eighteen of my best blog tips for you including how to promote blog posts and ways to increase traffic. I’ve learned a lot from the school of hard knocks. Maybe this will help keep you going until 2023!
The first time I hit publish was in spring of 2011 as an attempt to build an author’s platform. I had an idea for a snarky book about living in Boulder and was told I needed to blog. Back then I was a hunter who pecked each key with her index finger and spent days typing each post. Editing killed me.
18 best blog tips learned through six years of blogging:
All of these tips may help you to engage readers and increase traffic. Most of them I learned by trial and error. I’m still learning, believe me.