“By the time I was 17, you had done everything that you could to me. The problem is now, how are you going to save yourselves?” ––James Baldwin, Interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark
The Year of James Baldwin rightly had its genesis in New York City and remains anchored there. However, the author’s travels, including his frequent visits to Istanbul, Turkey, throughout the 1960s on up until 1971, and his choice to make a home for himself in St. Paul de Vence, France, made him something of a world citizen.
Consequently, people have begun to recognize the significance of The Year of James Baldwin across the globe and some in various cities are planning observations of their own. In the great American city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, the City Council has announced its intentions to proclaim the 90th anniversary of the author’s birth, August 2nd, as James Baldwin Day.
Moreover, because the officially-proclaimed year is slated to last until June 2015, any number of events may yet be announced in its observance. Along those lines, it should be noted that while a preview was presented of Carl Hancock Rux’s play, A Stranger on Earth, back in April, it will make its official debut at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in February 2015. But still to come this year are multiple screenings of the video The Price of the Ticket and various acknowledges of the anniversary of Baldwin’s death on December 1.
A Letter to Mr. Baldwin
In June 2010, administrators of the online literary community known as Red Room, which went offline on July 8, invited members to post letters to their favorite authors. This writer’s post was titled Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of) Dear Barack Obama. An excerpt from the letter was previously published in this column and elsewhere, but until Red Room went offline it was the only place where the letter could be read in entirely. Now, in honor of The Year of James Baldwin, the complete letter will be included with this article beginning with the first part of it below and final part in the next installment:
Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of) Dear Barack Obama
Dear Mr. Baldwin—
If I were not writing this letter to you as one of my favorite authors, I would probably be writing it to Barack Obama because there is a great deal about him which tends to remind me of a great deal about you. The sentence structures he employs in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, often curve in and out of passages that virtually sing with eloquence and yet, at times, shout with an unruly detachment in defense of truths many people generally prefer not to hear. The first time I heard such courageous music pour from the pages of a book or witnessed syllables explode like miniature bombs of revelation was when I read your Notes of a Native Son, then later The Fire Next Time.
Your birthdays are very close too—his on August 4, only two days after yours. But he was born in 1961, just after you turned thirty-seven. In that same history-forging year when you published the book of essays titled Nobody Knows My Name, addressed members of CORE in Washington, D.C., met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, traveled all the way to Israel and Istanbul, Turkey, and then, by the end of the year, completed what some still consider one of most controversial novels ever published in the North America: Another Country.
Mr. Obama reminds me of you also because he could have easily chosen for himself and his family a fairly quiet life in which he might have enjoyed the comforts of substantial earnings and the respect of his peers minus the constant public jabs he now endures while working, seemingly unceasingly, on behalf on his countrymen. By the same token, you in 1954 could have elected to enjoy a nonstop bohemian party in Paris, France—hanging out with mega-diva Josephine Baker, fellow author Chester Himes, and the disturbingly brilliant artist Beauford Delaney-- instead of returning home to be spat upon while dodging rocks and bullets as you marched beside Martin Luther King Jr. and many thousands more to confirm, with spilled blood and weeping souls, our country’s commitment to the ideals of Democracy. Through essays, plays, and novels, you wrestled as naked as naked gets with the operational dynamics of race relations, sexual identity, and social imbalances as you witnessed them. Such a quintessential artist-activist did you become that it was impossible to ignore you.
President Obama appears to me have elevated and implemented the artist-activist concept to the role of empowered servant-leader, as creative in his vision of the world’s possibilities as you were in yours, and as dedicated to the battle to help humanity liberate itself from the collective fears, prejudices, and ignorance that has yet to contribute anything of functional value to the world community. He is also impossible to ignore; so much so, in fact, that an entire new would-be political party/movement has formed to generate automatic negative criticisms of his every move or spoken word, whether instinctively brushing aside a fly or placing his well-traveled feet atop his desk. And you know what else? He said his favorite novelist is your old friend, Toni Morrison, and that he is particularly fond of The Song of Solomon, which just happens to be one of my all-time favorites as well.
NEXT: The Year of James Baldwin in full classic literary swing (part 3 of 3): Conclusion of the Letter Dear James Baldwin (in lieu of) Dear Barack Obama
author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Notebook on The 2014 – 2015 Year of James Baldwin
- The Year of James Baldwin Now in Full Classic Literary Swing Part 1
- Live Ideas James Baldwin This Time
- The Year of James Baldwin on Pinterest
- How to Have a Conversation with Author James Baldwin
- James Baldwin PBS American Masters
- The Ever-Relevant Mind and Activism of James Baldwin
- Photographs from James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade
- Events and Forthcoming Book Strengthens Baldwin’s Legacy
- The Quotable James Baldwin