What is it about James Baldwin?
This writer, long recognized as an important voice in American literature, has been gone for over a quarter-century, yet seems to be speaking incessantly in the country’s ear. He was born in Harlem in 1924, and died in the south of France in 1987, and achieved the kind of fame and impact within his lifetime that most writers only dream of.
And this gay black man – outspoken, honest and poetic about race and sensuality in a way that was rare in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – indeed, that still is – seems to be cited more than ever today. Because we are still mixed up about race and sex, because we still seek justice, because we still need his eloquence and courage. The year that would have been his 90th was recently celebrated with a variety of events held citywide under the banner The Year of James Baldwin.
There are so many different things to note and praise about Baldwin, and we will try to say many of them, not to mention read from his work, on Wednesday, October 7, when a special group of people will gather to unveil a commemorative plaque on a West Village row house where Baldwin lived in his mid-30s. We are thrilled to have the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Gregory Pardlo, join us; writer and Villager Fran Lebowitz, a great Baldwin admirer; Trevor Baldwin, a nephew of James Baldwin; and Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, which has just released a third volume of Baldwin’s collected works.
Everyone is invited to attend; see details and register here.
To say something a little different here, then, let’s turn to Baldwin’s Greenwich Village. Those who have read the classic essay “The Fire Next Time” or the novella “Giovanni’s Room” may not be familiar with Baldwin’s scenes of our neighborhood. They portray their era, while striking a chord of recognition for Villagers today.
Here is a passage from the novel “Another Country,” published in 1962, not long after Baldwin had moved on from his apartment on Horatio Street. Rufus, who is black, is walking with his friend Vivaldo, who is white, as is Rufus’s new girlfriend Leona:
“They encountered the big world when they went out into the Sunday streets. It stared unsympathetically out at them from the eyes of the passing people; and Rufus realized that he had not thought at all about this world and its power to hate and destroy. He had not thought at all about his future with Leona, for the reason that he had never considered that they had one. Yet, here she was, clearly intending to stay if he would have her. But the price was high: trouble with the landlord, with the neighbors, with all the adolescents in the Village and all those who descended during the week ends. And his family would have a fit. …
“A young couple came toward them, carrying the Sunday papers. Rufus watched the eyes of the man as the man looked at Leona; and then both the man and the woman looked swiftly from Vivaldo to Rufus as though to decide which of the two was her lover. And since this was the Village – the place of liberation – Rufus guessed, from the swift, nearly sheepish glance the man gave them as they passed, that he had decided that Rufus and Leona formed the couple. The face of his wife, however, simply closed tight, like a gate.
“They reached the park. Old, slatternly women from the slums and from the East Side sat on benches, usually alone, sometimes sitting with gray-haired, matchstick men. Ladies from the gigantic apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue, vaguely and desperately elegant, were also in the park, walking their dogs; and Negro nursemaids, turning a stony face on the grown-up world, crooned anxiously into baby carriages. The Italian laborers and small-business men strolled with their families or sat beneath the trees, talking to each other; some played chess or read L’Espresso. The other Villagers sat on benches, reading – Kierkegaard was the name shouting from the paper-covered volume held by a short-cropped girl in blue jeans – or talking distractedly of abstract matters, or gossiping or laughing; or sitting still, either with an immense, invisible effort which all but shattered the benches and the trees, or else with a limpness which indicated that they would never move again.”
Join us Oct. 7 at 6 p.m. to honor James Baldwin; see details and register here.