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Saturday, September 2, 2017

What Hides Behind the Unusual Door: Metaphor or Song?


Lord, I was to hear Beauford sing, later, and for many years,
open the unusual door. My running buddy had sent me
to the right one, and not a moment too soon.”

- The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction,
James Baldwin, 1948-1985

Dark Rapture (a portrait of James Baldwin)
(1941) Oil on canvas
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

In his collection of nonfiction stories spanning over 40 years, the writer James Baldwin recalls his close friend and mentor, Beauford Delaney, singing the phrase, “Lord, open the unusual door.” Today, there exists the question of whether Beauford was singing a verse of a song or whether the phrase is a metaphor that holds a certain truth to the artist. Since Baldwin recalls hearing Beauford sing the phrase “for many years,” it can be understood that the phrase was particular to Beauford and perhaps reflected an artistic philosophy. In my research to answer this question of song or metaphor, I stumbled upon articles highlighting the friendship between Baldwin and Beauford, who found artistic inspiration in each other. However, the origin of the phrase remains unknown, given the source of “old song.” This type of source allows for many interpretations: the phrase could have come from a song Beauford’s mother used to sing to him, or maybe from a prayer he learnt, or it could be a vision he was trying to express.

My research brought me to analyses of Beauford’s perception of the world and the important influence this perception had on Baldwin’s writing and his own view of reality. The image of opening an unusual door implies entering into an unfamiliar environment, one that leads to a new confrontation with reality. This idea is reflected in Beauford’s art and his belief that abstraction is the purest form of art. The artist looked beyond the world in front of us and found the light within the mundane. This required him to see with a different eye, to enter a new dimension.

In an interview for a Spanish literary journal in 1987, Baldwin recounted the start of his artistic life, which was shaped by Beauford’s perception of reality: “We were stopped at a street corner waiting for the traffic light to change, and Beauford pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. But he insisted: ‘Look again.’ Which I did, and I saw oil in the water and the city reflected in the puddle. For me this was a revelation. Which cannot be explained. He taught me to see, and to trust what I saw. Often it is painters who show writers how to see. And once you’ve had this experience, you see in a different mode.”* This reality of seeing allowed the artists to discover that light is contained in every surface and being. By passing through the “unusual door,” we become one with ourselves and the world around us. However, this new reality is not yet entirely known to us, and we may find in it something we did not want to discover.

In his article, “Open the Unusual Door: Visions from the Dark Window in Yuref Komunyakaa’s Early Poems,” Ed Pavlić compares the poet Komunyakaa’s image of the dark window with Beauford’s image of the unusual door, both of which must open in order to reveal a hidden truth about ourselves and the world we inhabit. In the author’s interpretation of the phrase, “Lord, open the unusual door,” Beauford describes a type of distance from reality that leads to a new form of presence. This unfamiliarity gives rise to a newfound intimacy with not only oneself, but the world around one as well. This sense of unfamiliarity is integral in the process of artistic expression because it forces one to step back from the world and find a new light where there once was only the darkness of the unknown. In this way, the artist not only pushes the boundaries of his mind, but of the world as well, creating new realities into which the artist may escape and find freedom.

Furthermore, Pavlić links the phrase to a modernist sense of creativity in which the artist has a transfiguring presence. This modernist sense of creativity involves an exploration of psychic interiors that resists conventional reasoning and enters into a modern dissociation of sensibility. As a result, they transform into versions of a kind of non-identical identity. “Lord, open the unusual door” calls for the discovery of the images that lie on the other side of the door, which will reveal the unconscious - images in the psyche that may reflect the artistic process of Beauford’s abstract paintings. However, according to the Pavlić’s analysis, opening the unusual door reveals a self that is not itself: “As it was for Baldwin, the creative process is centered in a world of transmuted, transmuting, presence which disrupts prepackaged meaning received through ideology, power, or simply laziness and the seductive inertia of habit. In Komynyakaa’s thought, this kind of presence is rooted in contradiction” – specifically in relation to racial identity, and other senses of self.

The image of the unusual door opening to another dimension where the psyche can move freely and transform, suggests that this door leads to lost or remote, but powerful, dimensions of the self that can come alive through art. In his paintings, it is clear that Beauford viewed the world with a different eye, one where the light in every body unites you with the world. Art allowed him to open that unusual door into this new dimension, but what lies there is unknown and unfamiliar, and there may be no way back.

*Elgrably, Jordan. “A traves del fuego: entrevista con James Baldwin.” Quimera: Revista de literature 41. (September 1984): 22.


Hanna Gressler is a rising senior at the American University of Paris. She is serving as a 2017 summer intern for the Wells International Foundation.

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