When James Baldwin Saw the Puddle

James Baldwin learned to see on a street corner in Greenwich Village.

He was with Beauford Delaney, an older African-American painter and close friend. The two were on a walk, waiting for the light to change.

Mr. Baldwin was in his teens, the son of a preacher in Harlem. He was being pushed to follow in his father’s professional footsteps. But he had found his way to Mr. Delaney, who he would later say was the first real proof to him that an African-American man could be an artist.

As they waited on the corner, Mr. Delaney pointed to a puddle on the ground. Look, he directed Mr. Baldwin.

Mr. Baldwin looked. He saw a puddle on the ground, a regular puddle on the regular ground that he and Mr. Delaney covered on their walks through the Village.

Look again, Mr. Delaney said. The painter believed that learning to see, learning to be conscious was essential to how an artist lived in the world.

Mr. Baldwin looked again. This time, he saw a layer of oil on the puddle. And he saw how the buildings, the skyline, the city were reflected in the puddle.

It was a revelation.

Beauford Delaney showed me how to see, Mr. Baldwin told The Paris Review. Not just how to see, but to trust what I saw.

The two continued on their walk in Greenwich Village. One an established artist, one an artist about to emerge from the wings. Both able to see the world.

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