Saturday, August 4, 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

James Baldwin: American Witness

"I am not a race and neither are you." --James Baldwin

This is the last installment of James Baldwin Week. The video I have included here is from a talk Baldwin delivered before the National Press Club in 1986, less than one year before his death on December 1, 1987. Baldwin always called himself a "witness"--a very apt characterization of his life, his work, and how he is presented here. During the discussion, Baldwin refers repeatedly to what he characterizes as the continuing American "aversion to history" which, in his view has forestalled true progress toward the ideals our country has espoused since its inception.

The video opens with a brief introduction of Baldwin--after he makes some commentary, there is an extended question-and-answer period where he speaks about black women's fiction, educational discrimination, the myth of "whiteness" (before the advent of whiteness studies), and his deep concern for young people. It is fascinating to hear Baldwin disabuse several questioners of their incorrect perceptions of his views on race. Baldwin is asked at the end of the discussion to name the "best" among all the works he authored--he gives a very beautiful answer, and then flashes his charming smile.

Throughout his life, Baldwin insisted that we had to become disillusioned (in its true meaning--to get rid of our illusions) in order to become fully mature. Through his fiction, drama, and essays, Baldwin's work was always about delineating and imbuing one's life  with a strong moral sense. I turn to writers such as James Baldwin to keep my mind focused as I struggle toward a deeper understanding of American history and literature and its importance in the development of our country and the fulfillment of its stated ethos.

At Baldwin's funeral, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Toni Morrison delivered one of the eulogies:

Toni Morrison’s eulogy at James Baldwin’s funeral in Dec 1987. 

"The season was always Christmas with you there and … you did not neglect to bring at least three gifts… You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention… . The second gift was your courage, which you let us share: the courage of one who could go as a stranger in the village and transform the distances between people into intimacy with the whole world… The third gift was hard to fathom and even harder to accept. It was your tenderness – a tenderness so delicate I thought it could not last, but last it did and envelop me it did.

You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No, This is jubilee. “Our crown,” you said, “has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, “is wear it.”

And we do, Jimmy. You crowned us."

All best,


Thursday, August 2, 2012


What was behind those/
Beautiful, luminous eyes/
Was all written down.

James Baldwin, photographed in 1963 by his 
DeWitt Clinton High School friend, Richard Avedon.

American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.--Baldwin
On this day in 1924, one of the greatest writers and intellectuals of the 20th century was born. To get a sense of his brilliant beginnings, I think that those of you who have not read Baldwin should start with his essay collection, Notes of a Native Son...first. everything else. Baldwin's insistent conscience speaks to us today--it is amazing how prescient he was, and maybe a little terrifying. 

All best,


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

An Honest Man and a Good Writer

Profound intellects/
Dealing in unvarnished truth/
Are always suspect.
James Baldwin (1924-1987), by Van Vechten, 1955.
"Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next--one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next." --James Baldwin
Read the entire 1952 essay from which this passage has been excerpted by clicking on the link below:
 Autobiographical Notes