Writer James Baldwin: A surging name in Black history


Every semester, I faced new classes of writing students. With rare exceptions, I didn’t know any of them. Reading names from the class list was like trying to pin paper dolls with their clothes. Sometimes nothing stuck. By the second or third class, if I was still stumbling, my students laughed at me. 

I protested. Look, there is just one of me looking at all of you, while all of you are looking at one of me. Give me a break.

As the author of “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, a Colored Man’s Widow,” I hoped book events would bring new readers, new faces, new names. I am happy to inscribe their names.  Still, it can sometimes be stressful getting the spelling correct. 

One time I watched author James Baldwin deal with new face after new face. 

Yes, I am saying I met James Baldwin. 

It happened in 1977 Detroit. All the Black people in the city, it seemed, including my brother, who was a law student, flooded into Wayne State University’s Community Arts auditorium to see Baldwin. He was with us, but the skinny was that the great author was really in town to visit his new lover, dancer Clifford Fears. 

I was a new Wayne State graduate, on assignment for the Black weekly newspaper The Michigan Chronicle. The event organizers sat me in the middle of the first row. 

By this time, I admired him. Thoroughly. I had studied his work in college. I had written about it. I had read all his novels: “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953), “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), “Another Country” (1962), “Tell Me How Long This Train’s Been Gone” (1968), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974).  

I was square in his line of sight each time he looked out at the sea of new faces. He didn’t know my name, but he knew my teeth. Grinning and skinning, they sometimes call the look I wore. He smiled and winked at me. It was so obvious that we were admiring each other that my brother commented later that he thought Baldwin would maybe change from guys to gals. 

That didn’t happen, but it definitely could have, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History Culture: “Baldwin firmly believed sexuality was fluid and should not be divided into strict categories …. .” 

I got to first base when he invited me to sit with him at his author’s table while he signed books. 

He was drunk. Drunk. I couldn’t smell alcohol — maybe he drank vodka — but I knew: his words were a little slurred. His signature a bit blurred. And his book dedications? All the same. “Thank you, James Baldwin.”

He did not look up, smile or ask his admirer’s name or how to spell it correctly. Any admirer who wished for that was SOL. 

All of us wanted a piece of him. Maybe that’s why Baldwin was drunk. I was just lucky I had the status to claim a teeny tiny bit of him while he signed books for each droplet in the human sea crashing upon his shore. 

We were wild for what he was saying about our lives. We were urban people. Like him, creatures of a northern city. The same crowded spaces, cold winters and hot, gritty summers dancing in the streets, but needing to be home before the streetlights came on. He was our mirror, our reflecting pool. His clear vision of our lives carved out with wonderful, Mt. Rushmore-size writing skills. 

Born in 1924 and dead at the young age of 63 in 1987, he was a child evangelist in Harlem. But Baldwin was gay, and that caused major problems with his preacher stepfather.

Black preachers are the legends of Black American history. The South had a champion in Martin Luther King Jr., and we celebrate him. But, up south in Michigan, our conditions were different, tighter, more explosive. 

Instead of rooting in the pulpit, Baldwin wrote. He illuminated grim-but-hopeful urban stories, many of which have come to the screen. Netflix first broadcast the film version of  “If Beale Street Could Talk” in 2018. It is a story of a young couple whose love is sabotaged by life in America. 

He flourished in the arena of ideas. He was part of the intelligentsia. His nonfiction was blunt in the pursuit of identity.

This February, in his native New York City, a dramatic staging of the conversation between him and lesbian poet Audre Lorde about race and sexuality will be staged at the Performance Space’s Keith Haring Theatre.  

On PBS, in 2016, the fierce documentary “I Am Not your Negro” was developed from his essay “Remember This Place.” “Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son” (1961) and “No Name in the Street” (1972) continued his writerly quest to show and explain the power of language identity.

I quote his essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” in my book about working mothers:

“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public or communal identity.” 

Historically, and right now, Baldwin connects our community. He is Black History. Prime February fodder.



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