Essays

Learning from James Baldwin

by Chloë Bass on May 1, 2014

The "Baldwin's New York" panel at New York Live Arts, featuring, from left to right: Aisha Karefa-Smart, Michele Wallace, Steven G. Fullwood, Thelma Golden, and Patricia Cruz (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy New York Live Arts)

The “Baldwin’s New York” panel at New York Live Arts, featuring, from left to right: Aisha Karefa-Smart, Michele Wallace, Steven G. Fullwood, Thelma Golden, and Patricia Cruz (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy New York Live Arts)

2014 is the “Year of James Baldwin” for New York City. Several major cultural organizations, including New York Live Arts, Columbia University, the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics, and Harlem Stage, are partnering to present a series of talks, events, performances and interventions inspired by, in response to, or continuing the writer’s legacy. Last week I had the pleasure of attending the kickoff festivities at New York Live Arts, during their second annual Live Ideas festival (the first, which took place last year, focused on popular neuroscientist Oliver Sacks). Titled James Baldwin, This Time! (a play on his The Fire Next Time, underline theirs), the weekend included events ranging from keynote conversations with artist Carrie Mae Weems and writer Jamaica Kincaid to video work (both documentary and artistic) and works-in-progress by notable theater, music, and dance practitioners. I attended two panels, as well as a preview performance by the singer/songwriter/playwright Stew and an outside event that coalesced around a similar theme, a discussion on socially engaged art at A Blade of Grass.

James Baldwin would have turned 90 this year. Since his death in 1987, the Berlin Wall has fallen, OJ Simpson was found innocent, we lived through September 11 and its aftermath, Michael Jackson died, Barack Obama has served 1.5 presidential terms, and George Zimmerman was also found innocent. This combination of steps forward and steps back — not nearly as simple as a two-to-one ratio — reveals America’s ongoing ambivalence about direct engagement with issues of race and class. Baldwin was nothing if not direct.

James Baldwin (1969) (photo by Allan Warren, via Wikipedia)

James Baldwin (1969) (photo by Allan Warren, via Wikipedia)

Yet the long-form nature of his thoughts (both in terms of linguistic style and in his conception of the slow nature of time) wouldn’t necessarily hold up well in our contemporary media environment. One of the central questions in both of the panels I attended — “James Baldwin This Time” and “James Baldwin’s New York” — was, “Could we have a Baldwin today?” Even as a historical figure, Baldwin is being dropped by schools. Still, his quotable-but-non-sound-bitable style, his dedication to long sentences, long thoughts, long and slow process make him even more important in our current, faster-paced but no more progressive America. “James Baldwin This Time” panelist Nancy Goldstein pointed to Baldwin’s combination of rage and compassion for this country as the core evidence of his genius. The Live Ideas festival seemed to be not so much a dissertation as a provocation: where can we find our own rage and compassion today?

The first time I read Baldwin’s novel Another Country, I was blown away not only by the power of the story and strength of the characters, but by the incredible, brutal romance of the writing. Baldwin captured a time and place in New York that, in a narcissistic way, I’ve always longed to have lived through. When I idealistically consider the real New York, Baldwin — far more than Woody Allen — is where my mind lands. When I practically consider my life, though, some elements of Baldwin aren’t that far off: the Another Country atmosphere of late 1950s NYC paved the way for my parents (one black, one white) to meet and fall in love in the NYC of the late 1970s. If I, about to turn 30, am the product of an America that Baldwin both archived and, in some ways, dreamed up, what should New York, my home, be now? What is “this time”?

The opening keynote conversation for 'James Baldwin, This Time!,' featuring Jamaica Kincaid, Carrie Mae Weems, and Bill T. Jones

The opening keynote conversation for ‘James Baldwin, This Time!,’ featuring Jamaica Kincaid, Carrie Mae Weems, and Bill T. Jones (photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy New York Live Arts) (click to enlarge)

In the several events that I attended last week, both at New York Live Arts and elsewhere, I noticed a palpable environmental difference during panel discussions where both speakers and audience were primarily white, and James Baldwin, This Time!, which was carefully, deliberately (and appropriately) integrated. At the latter, conversation took a different stylistic turn: panelists engaged in powerful storytelling rather than debate. There was a sense that loosely stitched together reminiscences, alongside the presentation of some very real historical and political engagement, hold value: that history is interpretive and built by people, rather than something that objectively and ominously hovers over real life without actually touching it.

Even the festival performance by Stew, whose previous works, including “Passing Strange,” incorporate the trickier aspects of writing one’s personal history, took a conversational — and occasionally confrontational — approach to the audience. This casual ease of connection and communication demonstrated the general atmosphere of the weekend: that the people in the room were family, people who treat each other honestly and directly, with a sense of shared responsibility for both past and future. One of Baldwin’s many legacies is the clarity with which he stated that the world is something we make together — an idea that in 2014, I think we could still stand to remember, grapple with, and actively live and re-live every day.

James Baldwin, This Time! took place at New York Live Arts from April 23 to 27. Video elements remain on view in the NYLA lobby through May 31, and select video talks will be posted online on NYLA’s YouTube Channel.

The Year of James Baldwin will continue in various locations throughout New York through spring 2015.

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