Everyone had always said that john would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. — James Baldwin*
Join Ayana Mathis for an online discussion of Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain. See link below to register.
Since Martin [LutherKing]’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgment concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make—indeed, I can see that a great deal of what the knowledgeable would call my lifestyle is dictated by this reluctance. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore, one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans—and for their sakes, after all—a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet: but to this speculation (or desperate hope) we shall presently return. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up, and condemn, forever, those descendants of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans.
The mind is a strange and terrible vehicle, moving according to rigorous rules of its own; and my own mind, after I had left Atlanta, began to move backward in time, to places, people, and events I thought I had forgotten. Sorrow drove it there, I think, sorrow, and a certain kind of bewilderment, triggered, perhaps, by something which happened to me in connection with Martin’s funeral.
When Martin was murdered, I was based in Hollywood, working—working, in fact, on the screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was a difficult assignment, since I had known Malcolm, after all, crossed swords with him, worked with him, and held him in that great esteem which is not easily distinguishable, if it is distinguishable at all, from love. (The Hollywood gig did not work out because I did not wish to be a party to a second assassination: but we will also return to Hollywood, presently.)
Very shortly before his death, I had to appear with Martin at Carnegie Hall, in New York. Having been on the Coast so long, I had nothing suitable to wear for my Carnegie Hall gig, and so I rushed out, got a dark suit, got it fitted, and made my appearance. Something like two weeks later, I wore this same suit to Martin’s funeral; returned to Hollywood; presently, had to come East again, on business. I ran into Leonard Lyons one night, and I told him that I would never be able to wear that suit again. Leonard put this in his column. I went back to Hollywood.
Weeks later, either because of a Civil Rights obligation, or because of Columbia Pictures, I was back in New York. On my desk in New York were various messages—and it must be said that my sister, Gloria, who worked for me then, is extremely selective, not to say brutal, about the messages she leaves on my desk. I don’t see, simply, most of the messages I get. I couldn’t conceivably live with them. No one could—as Gloria knows. However, my best friend, black, when I had been in junior high school, when I was twelve or thirteen, had been calling and calling and calling. The guilt of the survivor is a real guilt—as I was now to discover. In a way that I may never be able to make real for my countrymen, or myself, the fact that I had “made it”—that is, had been seen on television, and at Sardi’s, could (presumably!) sign a check anywhere in the world, could, in short, for the length of an entrance, a dinner, or a drink, intimidate headwaiters by the use of a name which had not been mine when I was born and which love had compelled me to make my own–meant that I had betrayed the people who had produced me. Nothing could be more unutterably paradoxical: to have thrown in your lap what you never dreamed of getting, and, in sober, bitter truth, could never have dreamed of having, and that at the price of an assumed betrayal of your brothers and your sisters! One is always disproving the accusation in action as futile as it is inevitable. — James Baldwin, fromNo Name in theStreet*
Join Darryl Pinckney for a “close reading of Baldwin’s beautiful, blistering memoir of the events that forged his consciousness of race and identity—growing up in Harlem, the murders of MartinLuther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, his long residence in France, his fateful decision to retum to the American South”—presented by the Library of America.
“I didn’t want to speak for black people. I wanted to speak to, and among…”
And it is shocking, in Greenfield-Sanders documentary, to come across such benighted critical voices as, say, Sara Blackburn’s in 1973, in America’s supposedly liberal newspaper of record:
“Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”*
Removing the white male gaze as the dominant voice is a key element of Morrison’s practice, and she doesn’t hesitate calling out black writers who seemed to write to white audiences. Citing RalphEllison, she asks, “The Invisible Man? Invisible to whom?”
As a senior editor at Random House throughout the 1970s, Morrison discovered and championed books by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Bettie Wysor (author of TheLesbian Myth). She also persuaded Angela Davis—then in her late twenties—to write her autobiography.
“Eventually I learned that the book she wanted to publish was the book I wanted to write… She helped me access my imagination in ways I continue to be grateful for today.” — Angela Davis
Song of Solomon (1977) was Morrison’s first best seller, and five years later she left her editor’s post to devote her time to writing and teaching. She’s professor emeritus at PrincetonUniversity, and often told her students, “I know you’ve been told, ‘write what you know.’ I don’t want you to do that. You don’t know anything.”
TONI MORRISON—THE PIECES I AM features interviews with Morrison’s friends and colleagues—Walter Mosley, Farah Griffin, Fran Lebowitz, Paula Giddings, Hilton Als, Sonia Sanchez, editor Robert Gottlieb, and Davis—as well as a rich selection of contemporary artwork by, among others, Mickalene Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, David Hammons, and Rashid Johnson.
Ellis Haizlip—black, gay, and deeply invested in the African-American liberation and equality movements of the 1960s and ’70s—was the producer and host of the short-lived but seminal public television show Soul!, which aired from 1968 to 1973. Sui generis in its approach and impact, Haizlip’s Soul! gave black voices an unprecedented platform at a crucial time.
Directors Melissa Haizlip and SamPollard have brought the life and work of this catalyst to a new generation with the documentary MR. SOUL!, screening this week at the LA Film Festival in its local premiere.
Included in the film are rare interviews and performances by James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Harry Belafonte, Al Green, SidneyPoitier, Ruby Dee, Odetta, Stokely Carmichael, Merry Clayton, Betty Shabazz, George Faison, Toni Morrison, Patti LaBelle, The Last Poets, and many more.