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James Baldwin 20th Anniversary Commemoration: Remembering the Life and Work of the Legendary Writer and Civil Rights Activist

StoryDecember 07, 2007
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James Baldwin, the legendary African American writer and civil rights activist, died 20 years ago this week. This Sunday in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture is holding a 20th anniversary commemoration. We take a look at Baldwin’s life and his work with his sister-in-law Carole Weinstein, and we hear Baldwin in his own words. We also hear Tony Award-nominated actor Calvin Levels performing a part of his acclaimed one-man show, “James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of the legendary African American writer, civil rights activist, James Baldwin.

He was born in Harlem in 1924. He grew up in poverty in New York City. In 1948, he moved to Paris to become a full-time writer. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. It’s considered a classic American work. Throughout the rest of the ’50s, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York City to Istanbul. His novels Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni’s Room explored themes of homosexuality and interracial relationships. As an openly gay man, James Baldwin also became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against gay people.

Baldwin returned to the United States in the early ’60s. His book The Fire Next Time dealt with issues of black identity and the state of racial struggle. Baldwin became a fiery spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Here, he speaks at Oakland, California’s Castlemont High School. It was June 1963.

    JAMES BALDWIN: I think the other reason, and perhaps the most important reason, that I am throwing these suggestions out to you tonight is that in this country, every black man born in this country, until this present moment, is born into a country which assures him, in as many ways as it can find, that he is not worth the dirt he walks on. Every Negro boy and every Negro girl born in this country until this present moment undergoes the agony of trying to find in the body politic, in the body social, outside himself/herself, some image of himself or herself which is not demeaning. Now, many, indeed, have survived, and at an incalculable cost, and many more have perished and are perishing every day. If you tell a child and do your best to prove to the child that he is not worth life, it is entirely possible that sooner or later the child begins to believe it.

AMY GOODMAN: James Baldwin, speaking in June 1963. That audio from the Pacific Radio Archives.

This Sunday in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture is holding a twentieth anniversary commemoration for James Baldwin. Among those who will be there are Carole Weinstein, James Baldwin’s sister-in-law, and Calvin Levels, a Tony Award-nominated actor. He travels the country performing his acclaimed one-man show, James Baldwin: Down from the Mountaintop.

Carole Weinstein and Calvin Levels join me now in the firehouse studio. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Carole, talk about James Baldwin. When did you first meet him? You married his brother David?

CAROLE WEINSTEIN: Yes. I met Jimmy and the family in 1964, when we were at a party in the East Village. And from that day on, I was drawn into a world of love, of passion, of commitment, of a journey of what is life all about, which led to my own self-examination of identity and everyone else’s that I was around. When I first met Jimmy and David at that time, they were in rehearsal for Blues for Mister Charlie, which had a limited run at the ANTA Theater on 52nd Street and Broadway.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that play was about.

CAROLE WEINSTEIN: The play was to honor what unfortunately was Emmett Till’s murder in the South, and it was a play, the first of its kind, to really examine the challenges of racism in America, of growing up black in America, and of growing up all over the country in different ways, as well. And in his efforts to try to express what occurred then and the impact it has on the white population, as much as anyone else, the play was very profound in its delivery.

And it was hard for audiences to take, because they — some would leave. But one thing about that play, in particular, was that it was — it was a blues. You know, it was the beat of Jimmy’s understanding of his people, of the cadence, the commitments to trying to tell the story in a way that people could hear it. And the performances were so profound and dramatic and real that a lot of people couldn’t take the reality and did walk out.

The play was then taken to London, and it ran there briefly. And, unfortunately, it didn’t run as long as it should have. But it was a very significant historical moment in the history of American theater, American literature, and interrelationships with people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about James Baldwin leaving the United States first.

CAROLE WEINSTEIN: Jimmy left the United States to stay alive, really. He was so passionately distraught and committed to trying to enable — it wasn’t about his life; it was about the lives of his family, the lives of people. He had an extraordinary concern for humanity, and you would never have a conversation with him where he didn’t try to put it in the context of what does this mean for all of us. So it was always the greater good, the community, the concern, which was totally unselfish. And so, this whole experience of him leaving was his way of going away to reflect on how he could talk about, write about, communicate about what he had been through to educate people in a way that could help them be better human beings. And that meant the entire world.

AMY GOODMAN: He went to France, he went to Turkey.

CAROLE WEINSTEIN: Yes. He went to Istanbul. He went to Turkey. He lived in both those places quite a number of years. And he found his way in Paris, literally on the streets, learned French like a native, was able to speak and communicate it as well as anyone who had grown up there. He befriended and was befriended by the cafe society, so to speak, of the Left Bank, including Richard Wright and all kinds of other people.

And in that place, he became very embroiled in trying to really make a statement about the significance of what it takes to really become who you can become. He knew he had to write. He knew he had to express what he knew was real. And the way to do it was to do it there. From Paris, he moved to the south of France in 1971. He purchased a house in St. Paul.

AMY GOODMAN: But he came back in the '60s —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- to the United States.

CAROLE WEINSTEIN: Because of the Civil Rights Movement.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a speech that James Baldwin made in New York. It was September 25, 1963, just ten days after the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls. This is some of what James Baldwin had to say.

    JAMES BALDWIN: We are not — are we? — at the mercy of our political institutions. If we created them, we are responsible for them. We have the right and the duty to overhaul them, to change them. We are not — are we? — so helpless, to say that the [inaudible] has to stay there forever. Who said so? I dare them to go in any Birmingham barbershop and talk to anybody. I dare them.

    And I think that commission, the appointment of that commission, the very notion, and the apathy with which the country has greeted it, proves my point. We have no right to allow the death of six children. And our common disaster and our common crisis and our moral crisis to be met in this way, it proves, if anything does, that the terms in negotiation must now be radically changed. One cannot negotiate with the representatives of one's oppressors.

    It is time to let the nation know that the death of my child — I, as a black man — and the spiritual death of your child — you, as a white man — cannot be met by sending down a commission to find out what happened. We know what happened. What we have to do is prevent it from happening again. And in order to do that, one doesn’t beg the Birmingham city fathers for a truce; you use whatever weight you have to force them to recognize your presence in that city, in that state, and in this country, as a man, no matter what it costs who.

AMY GOODMAN: James Baldwin, speaking in New York. It was ten days after the Birmingham church bombing — four little girls killed there.

I want to go now to an excerpt of a documentary about James Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket. It was made in 1989 by Karen Thorsen. The clip tracks Baldwin’s return to the United States from self-imposed exile in Europe to take part in the civil rights struggle.

    JAMES BALDWIN: When Dorothy Counts was spat on by the mob as she was trying to go to school, that was the day I decided I was coming home. And I came home, you know, to see, you know, to do whatever I could do. And I went south, and I began to deal with the reality, which had always been incipient in me but never been expressed or objectified. I fell in love with those people. And I was very happy to be in the South, even though it was very frightening. Something in me —- something in me recognized it. Something in me had come home.

    UNIDENTIFIED 1: N——-r, you live in the world you live in, Brother.

    UNIDENTIFIED 2: He’s not even teaching me about the future of my people.

    UNIDENTIFIED 1: Well, what are you going to school for then, dummy?

    UNIDENTIFIED 2: We don’t even have a country.

    UNIDENTIFIED 1: I know that!

    UNIDENTIFIED 2: Do we have a country?

    UNIDENTIFIED 1: He said the United States is your country, which is not your country. We have no flag, Brother.

    JAMES BALDWIN: A boy last week — he was sixteen — told me on television — thank God we got him to talk, maybe somebody was taught to listen — he said, “I’ve got no country, I’ve got no flag.” And he’s only sixteen years old. And I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does.

    And the moment you were born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone and every face is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are, too. It comes as a great shock, around the age of five or six or seven, to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, when you were rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover the country, which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality involved any place for you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was James Baldwin actually in Cambridge debating William Buckley, and this from the documentary The Price of the Ticket, written and directed by Karen Thorsen.

Our guests are Carole Weinstein, who is the sister-in-law of James Baldwin, and Calvin Levels, actor, Tony Award nominee. He is performing James Baldwin, Down from the Mountaintop, around the country. This Sunday at 3:00, he’ll be at the Schomburg Center performing this one-man show. How did you get involved with this, Calvin?

CALVIN LEVELS: I got involved with it — one day I was just sitting at home thinking about something to work on and a project to write, and it popped into my head, you know, James Baldwin, the times that we’re living in, we really could use a voice like Baldwin now. And I also thought that this younger generation, the new generation, needs to know about this great man, you know, because he left a blueprint for struggle and for standing up, being a warrior in the movement. And he was a great pacifist, so I just thought it would be a great, great project here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you perform a portion of what you will be doing, you are performing around the country?

CALVIN LEVELS: Yes, if I can ask Jimmy to come here right now. Jimmy, where are you?

Yes, OK, I’m here, Calvin. Yes, I heard you playing a clip about the South earlier. You know, I was very terrified to go to the South for the first time, but I never forget my first trip to the South, see, because I was flying into Atlanta, Georgia, and I was looking down from the plane, and I was seeing the color of the earth — blood red — thinking that that earth, it had acquired this color from all the blood that tripped down from the trees. My mind, you know, was filled with the image of the black man, see, younger than I, perhaps, my own age, hanging from a tree. A white man watched him, cut his sex from him with a knife. And I wonder, when will this country learn? See, those nooses are still being hung all over this country, you know?

If the people of this nation are not capable of true self-evaluation, this nation may yet become one of the most distinguished monumental failures in the history of the world. People imagining their history flatters them, as it does indeed, since they wrote it, they are impaled on that history, like a butterfly on a pin, and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world. Now, this is the place in which, it seems to me, the most white Americans find themselves: impaled. The do not know how to release themselves from it and suffer enormously, see, from that resulting personal incoherence. See, they are dimly or vividly aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, alright?

Now, the one person who released us all from that suffering — I met on that blood-red soil of Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King. He told me, he says, “Jimmy, segregation is dead.” And I replied, “Yes. But just how long and how violent and how expensive of a funeral is it going to be?” And I remember him speaking at that church — that was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — and seeing that bomb damage done to those. After witnessing those terrorist acts, you know, something inside me changed. I had to become political. I could no longer sit somewhere, honing my talent to fine heads, after I’ve been to all those places in the South, you know, seeing all those boys and girls, men and women, black and white, you know, just longing for change. It would have been impossible for me to just drop them a visit and then leave.

But in retrospect, in retrospect, there was something — something very beautiful about that period, something very life-giving for me to be there, to march, be part of a sit-in, see it through my own eyes. But not everything that could be faced could be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Speaking of change, you know, in the history of this country, it really hasn’t changed all that much since that historic march on Washington, because the people — the seat of power remains the seat of power. And I know how that power work, baby, because it worked on me. And therefore, I cannot afford myself any illusions concerning the manipulation of that power; otherwise I never would have survived it.

I decided very early on to choose a power which outlasts King, which has allowed me to come back here today and tell you that those people sitting in Washington, D.C., they don’t really believe in the things they say they believe, and they don’t even know about the world which surrounds them. I mean, if they couldn’t deal with my father and me, how could they deal with the people in Tehran or Baghdad, or New Orleans, for that matter? If somebody would throw them in jail for all their lies, un-American activities, the future of this country would be much brighter. Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy that justice can have.

Look, I love America more than any country in the world, and it is exactly for that reason that I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.

AMY GOODMAN: Calvin Levels, Tony Award-nominated actor, playing James Baldwin all over this country, and this weekend, Sunday, come at the Schomburg Center.

I want to end with a clip of James Baldwin talking about race relations in this country and concepts of whiteness and blackness. He is talking in September of ’63.

    JAMES BALDWIN: The American revolution, the terms are these: not that I drive you out or that you drive me out, but that we come together and embrace and learn to live together. That is the only way that we can have achieved the American revolution.

    Now, if we can face this, it involves facing a great many things. It demands that white people face the fact that I, for example, or any black person they will ever meet or have ever met — I am not an exotic rarity. I am not a stranger. I am none of those things. On the contrary, for all you know, for all you know, I might be your uncle, your brother, your cousin, among other things. One of the things that has happened here — and the pathology of the Deep South proves it; so does the pathology of the North, which dictates to them that they move out and I move in — among other things which have to be excavated here is the fact that this long history is also the history of a love affair.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of James Baldwin. And you can go to our website at democracynow.org and see these photographs that have not been shown publicly before. Thank you, Carole Weinstein. Thank you, Calvin Levels. This weekend, 3:00 at the Schomburg Center at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard; 7:00, we’ll have a panel discussion with Cornel West and Amiri Baraka and others. Hope you join us.

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Up Next

Historian Taylor Branch on the March on Washington and the Kennedys’ Aversion to Dr. King’s Struggle

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