This morning I participated in a roundtable organized by Rich Blint for the Harlem Book Fair Fiction Festival, The Year of James Baldwin and I think because Rich really wanted this discussion of Baldwin. It was the first of three programs. It had the lofty title, Inheritance: James Baldwin and His Literary Progeny. Along with Kiese Laymon, the novelist and writer; Christopher Winks, the well-known academic and moderated by Aimee Meredith Cox, we delved into what Baldwin’s work and example has left us and how we are trying in our own ways to carry on work that deals with the human heart, the American psyche and the American empire. We did not even touch on sexuality or gender issues too much. Baldwin looms large for Black writers because in the 1960s and early 1970s he was the face of Black intellectualism. He wrote beautifully, powerfully and yet he was in the streets too. He talked to everyone and people listened. He was hated and haunted too. That’s the way it goes for a man who thought of himself as ugly and identified with Bette Davis because she has pop eyes and so must be ugly too.
Aimee Cox started the conversation by mentioning the idea of Baldwin’s life as representing a “probable impossibility” (I hope I am saying this correctly). Given Baldwin’s background, poverty, etc. how did he grow up the eldest of nine children to become the man and the writer that he became. Probable impossibility seems apt. But he did. Over the past two weeks I have read two Baldwin novels and re-read several of his essays. It was not a total immersion by any measure, but these works remind me of why his voice-sensual, intellectual, cajoling, angry, loving, hinting at redemption, but not necessarily forgiveness remains vivid,loud and powerfully present. American literature would have been so much poorer if he had not had the career that he did.
This morning we talked about courage and cowardice; what is at stake in our lives as writers; as educators; as American citizens while our nation sinks into an even greater morass of mistakes inside and outside our borders and indeed on our border–the humanitarian crisis with thousands of children fleeing possible murder. The appalling situation in the Middle East. And the nihilistic GOP aka just say no to governance party. We can only guess what Baldwin would say, but frankly, it is up to us to have our say on these and other issues. Art is political because it involves communication with people; with setting up dynamics of dialogue started by the poet, the artist, Will these dialogues lead to insights, new ways to thinking, some form of transformation or will we refine what is already there. Today, other members of the panel explained to me what neoliberalism is because I see this word used all the time as a kind catchall for bad public (private partnership) policy. I thank them.
Later, Pam Sneed, Mendi Obadike and Rashida Ismaili discussed The Artist Struggle for Integrity. It was a very important discussion and some of the same issues: Baldwin’s “preaching”; the uses of African American religious music-those hymns come up over and over in his work; the fact that “Baldwin identified as a gay man” as Pam pointed out were all important. Right now artists/poets are struggle to being seen and heard in an era where many of potential artist are texting; have the same songs on heavy rotation; or just don’t read; don’t go to events, even free one. Where many young people do not have the habit of having an opinion because nobody asks them what they think. They should be asked and we need to start asking and sooner than later. Forces are arrayed to make the lives of most people more difficult as salaries stagnate; wages rarely go up; collective bargaining is underminded; and those with wealth and power further consolidate their wealth and power. I know this is a long piece, but well Baldwin makes you think about what we have had to face; what so many desired; what has happened and what still needs to get done. I am honored to have been asked to participate in such an amazing program.