Two contrasting films of the inspiring author James Baldwin were screened at the Brecht forum in the West Village, NYC last night with curator Matt Peterson of Red Channels. One, a South Florida TV interview of Baldwin by a TV personality and history professor with a small live audience, was focused on his political views. The second film recorded his passionate address to a larger, West Indian audience in London. Both focused on solidarity of oppressed people and the need for broader freedoms, for a deeper understanding of our damaged selves and our damaged society. He spoke of revolution on a global scale, he spoke with hope.
I had just finished reading James Baldwin’s memoir, “No name in the street” the day before, but had never really heard his voice. My impression from the films of both his interview and speech was that James Baldwin was not afraid to offend, and yet I found him so lovable. The things he spoke about were so tragic, horrible, but the way he smiled, and moved was so irresistibly likable.
Hearing Baldwin then, at the time of the Vietnam war, say he didn’t see how we could free people over there in Asian jungles, when we couldn’t free people here in the urban streets of Detroit and Harlem–I thought of now. Of how here we heard strong disapproval of the Internet restrictions in Egypt during this past month of revolution, yet many have called for restrictions on Internet leaked documents, and we all still lack access to Al Jazeera in English on TV here. It’s probably always easier to demand someone else change, than to work for change within ourselves and our own country.
Hearing Baldwin in the 1960’s describe bodies, no, corpses of his brothers and sisters literally pile up around him though they had done nothing wrong–I thought of losses of our young now piling up from the recent foreign wars. Ethnic disparities too are not gone, but have shifted now away from the issue of entry into schools. They persist and grow with respect to entry into the military, into jails, and in the numbers suffering from chronic and viral diseases.
After the films, Kazembe Balagun of Brecht Forum led a heated discussion with Rich Blint, doctoral student at NYU, professor Hugo Benavides, of Fordham University and the audience. James Baldwin was described as a moral compass, an anthropologist, and a political figure in addition to a beloved and enormously successful writer. One area of agreement was that Baldwin is too little known now, and not taught in general as part of the literary heritage.
I only first heard of James Baldwin when I was already in graduate school in Philadelphia. A poet friend of mine there had told me I had to read James Baldwin, and I did. And then I met James Baldwin when he came by to visit South African poet Dennis Brutus at a small poetry workshop where I was one of a dozen writers struggling with my poetry. Dennis Brutus was my hero then, and I kept his notes on my poems on my desk where I could see them for always.
We need a hero, we need a prophet, I did anyway, and I do.
Kazembe left us with this inspiring note from Baldwin–nothing is more important than the human being. And the wind was howling cold off the Hudson walking back to the train to Brooklyn, but I was warmed by this beautiful message landing on a soft spot on Valentine’s day evening.
What have you read of James Baldwin that’s moved you?
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