“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant.” –James Baldwin, from the essay Nothing Personal
Before there were human resource managers and action research teams counseling American corporations on the advantages of embracing diversity rather than vilifying it, there was author James Baldwin putting the theory to the test in acclaimed essays, novels, plays, short stories, poems, and dialogues. Social networkers in recent weeks have found occasion to quote those writings in regard to everything from a Palestinian state and gay marriage equality to Barack Obama’s presidency and the American identity.
It is true that he marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and shared podiums with Malcolm X, Marlon Brando, and other iconic figures of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It is also true that the author was something of a mentor to both the late Literarian Award-winner Maya Angelou and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison. Yet these biographical notes cannot fully account for the astonishing resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s legacy as observed in New York City and elsewhere via the ongoing Year of James Baldwin in honor of the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Baldwin understood that diversity was about more than racial dynamics or shifting cultural demographics. He knew that once society made its way past surface categorizations it would have to confront the more beguiling challenge of individuality dwelling beneath the surface of public demeanor. He was acutely aware of every American as a crucial stakeholder in the future of democracy, and just as aware of humanity’s need in general to liberate itself from the fear-driven inclination to oppress another for the sake of laying false claim to a doubly-false sense of “security.” What may provide greater insight on the resurgence of interest in his work and encourage reasons to host dialogues regarding the same on every educational level is the following:
The Year of James Baldwin Now in Full Classic Literary Swing
Members of New York City’s cultural arts community made a rare kind of decision earlier this year and the results of that decision continue to generate exceptional events and responses. They–– as in Columbia University School of the Arts, Harlem Stage, and New York Live Arts–– elected to observe The Year of James Baldwin from April 2014 until June 2015 in honor of the late iconoclastic African-American author’s 90th birthday August 2, 2014.
Long before he died on December 1, 1987, millions came to recognize the indelible mark of Baldwin’s impact on, and the incredible depth of his singular voice within American literature. He is in many ways more alive now than ever before, a statement that holds especially true when considering the events that have already been held to launch the year dedicated to him.
“There were few political figures as deeply engaged and as capaciously soulful as James Baldwin, nor we’d like to insist, any as urgently pertinent to our own times,” noted curator Lawrence Weschler in the brochure for Live Ideas, James Baldwin This Time! He added the following:
“We agree with one of our Festival’s premier participants, the poet Nikky Finney, that James Baldwin may well have been one of ‘the most salient, sublime and consequential American writers of the twentieth century.’ And this is not just because he confronted truths about race and gender with a vividness and lucidity few before him had done, but because he always did so from the vantage of an American—not just a black man, not just a gay man, but an heir to the whole harrowing, horrible, magnificent American project, and a prophet as to what that project yet could become, and indeed has to become.”
Initial enthusiasm for The Year of James Baldwin has been backed up with many outstanding events launched during April. One of them was the premier of Patricia McGregor’s stage adaptation of Nothing Personal, based on photographer Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) and Baldwin’s now classic 1964 work of quietly understated images and provocative text such as this:
“…Wherever love is found, it unfailingly makes itself felt in the individual, the personal authority of the individual. Judged by this standard, we are a loveless nation. The best that can be said is that some of us are struggling. And what we are struggling against is that death in the heart which leads not only to the shedding of blood, but which reduces human beings to corpses while they live.”
Another noted event was a “preview” of the multi-talented Carl Hancock Rux’s stage piece, Stranger on Earth (the title comes from a classic song by Dinah Washington). Featuring Rux and vocalist Marcelle Davies Lashley, the work imagines Baldwin and Washington in a powerful dialogue on race, music, and creative artists’ perceptions of the future of the world.
Among the most talked about events thus far has been a conversation focused on Baldwin’s still-controversial novel, Another Country, between the Academy-Award nominated actor Jake Gyllenhaal and author Colm Toíbín held May 1at Columbia University’s Altshcul Auditorium. The year-long celebration also received substantial attention during the Harlem Book Festival held July 11-14 with important panel discussions on work by Baldwin held at both Columbia University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In addition to those already noted, numerous others have lent their celebrated voices in support of the event, including: choreographer Bill T. Jones, the dramatist Stew, poet Yusuf Komunyakaa, and authors Michelle Wallace, Walter Mosely, Jamaica Kincaid, ad Fran Lebowitz, just to name a few.
FOR MORE PLEASE READ: The Year of James Baldwin Now in full classic literary swing (part 2): Letter to James Baldwin
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.