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Fire this time: Rekindling James Baldwin’s intellectual legacy

Illustration by Rachael Dottle
this time | The School of the Arts’ Office of Community Outreach, along with Harlem Stage and New York Live Arts have teamed to create the Year of Baldwin.

In his essay “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin writes, “Time catches up with kingdoms and crushes them, gets its teeth into doctrines and rends them; time reveals the foundations on which any kingdom rests, and eats at those foundations, and it destroys doctrines by proving them to be untrue.” Ironically, the same can be said about Baldwin’s own kingdom: The vast realm of his written works and the influence he had within Harlem in the mid-20th century was unparalleled, but decades later, Baldwin’s legacy is put to the test. 

Despite the massive contributions the author has made to modern American literature—which include novels, essays, poems, and most importantly, a great deal of social commentary about sexuality and racism—Baldwin seems to be oft overlooked, due at least in part to the sensitive and apparently controversial subject matter and the subsequent censorship of his works. 

Nevertheless, to understand the humanist’s intellectual clout, Baldwin’s influence can be traced back through those who were touched by his works, from Toni Morrison, who edited the Library of America’s collection of Baldwin’s fiction and essays, to Jake Gyllenhaal, who is speaking about Baldwin next week at Columbia. 

“Every African-American household ought to have a complete collection of James Baldwin's work,” novelist Jamaica Kincaid said in an April 14 conversation on WNYC with NY Live Arts’ Lawrence Weschler and Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director of Columbia’s School of the Arts’ Office of Community Outreach and Education.

“I said, ‘No, every American should have something by Baldwin in their household,’” Blint said in an interview with Spectator.

So, it is fitting that this year, the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, several cultural and academic institutions in New York City—primarily Harlem Stage, NY Live Arts, and Columbia’s School of the Arts—arranged the Year of James Baldwin, a citywide celebration spanning the next 14 months that will restore interest in and disseminate the ideas of one of the most classic New York writers. The Year of James Baldwin began on Wednesday, with NYLA’s second annual Live Ideas festival, “James Baldwin: This Time!”

Although Harlem Stage conceived the idea, Lawrence Weschler and Bill T. Jones, the co-curators of the festival, partnered with Harlem Stage to extend the Baldwin theme to the Live Ideas festival and have been planning the events since October.

According to its website, Live Ideas is meant to be an annual festival of arts and ideas, and each year focuses on a different subject. Last year’s original event centered on neurologist Oliver Sacks and the connection between the mind, the body, and individual creativity.

The theme of the event is manifest in a number of performances, from discussions and panels to public readings and dance performances and visual arts exhibits. NYLA also collaborated with a number of other institutions, from The New School to the National Black Theatre, to organize this event and contribute scholars and artists to each piece.

Elizabeth Cooke, the communications manager for “James Baldwin: This Time!” noted that several artists heard about the event and wanted to participate. 

“Despite their busy schedules, they really wanted to be involved in terms of creating artistic responses on their own, around the artistic materials that Baldwin created,” Cooke said. 

Every day of the event will also feature “Jimmy at High Noon,” a daily midday reading of Baldwin’s works by distinguished artists like poet Nikky Finney, actor Jesse L. Martin, and musician Vijay Iyer. In one of many instances of administrative crossover between Live Ideas and Columbia’s Baldwin programming, “High Jimmy at Noon” is being directed by Patricia McGregor, with dramaturgy by Blint.  

“I lent my knowledge of Baldwin to everyone, but each institution does its own thing with it,” Blint said.

In keeping with Baldwin’s assertion that artists make use of all media to arrive at the truth, Wednesday’s keynote address was a conversation between photographer Carrie Mae Weems, Kincaid, and choreographer Jones about the common American experience of injustice. 

In addition to events that are directly about Baldwin’s work, there are a number of performances that are inspired by the author. On Saturday, NYLA will present “Baldwin Through Dance.” The piece will feature Dianne McIntyre’s world premiere of “Time is Time,” which was inspired by Baldwin’s “Song (for Skip),” and a premiere of Charles O’Anderson’s “Restless Natives,” exploring Baldwin’s “Another Country.” 

The festival concludes on Sunday evening with a conversation between Fran Lebowitz, an author and social critic, and Colm Tóibín, the Sidney B. Silverman Professor of the Humanities at Columbia.

Richard Posnock, a Columbia professor of 20th-century American intellectual history, noted that Baldwin was “a perfect choice” for the festival because of the author’s cultural presence. 

“Many think of him as their personal intellectual hero because of the passion and beauty of his language and generosity of his vision of what the US could be,” he said in an email.

Although “James Baldwin: This Time!” wraps up Sunday, the author’s commemoration is far from over. 

Tóibín notes that although Baldwin was the son of Harlem, he attempted to connect the world he came from to the world of Downtown, and the Year of Baldwin symbolizes this duality within Baldwin.

To immortalize the author’s personal history, on Aug. 2 the section of 128th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues will be named after Baldwin. The renaming, spearheaded by Baldwin’s nephew, has been waiting on the approval of the city. On this portion of 128th Street is Harlem Renaissance High School, formerly P.S. 24, where Baldwin attended elementary school. The official renaming, which will occur on Aug. 2, will convene the Baldwin family with elected officials and culminate with a public reading at the National Black Theatre.

Blint said that after the Live Ideas festival, NYLA will be “passing the baton” to Columbia, although he will continue to collaborate with the other two partners. The first of Columbia’s series of panels will be a discussion between Tóibín, and actor Jake Gyllenhaal on May 1 about Baldwin’s novel, “Another Country.” That panel will be introduced by Carol Becker, dean of the School of the Arts, and Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia’s William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American studies. There will also be several other panels in the coming months.

Blint also acknowledged that it was especially important for Columbia to engage Baldwin’s legacy. “Baldwin is a son of Harlem. ... It’s important for Columbia as a university—but also because of where we’re situated—to engage the legacy of someone like Baldwin.”

Blint, Toíbín, and Posnock all commented that Baldwin’s works maintained their relevance to the present day. “His voice is necessary to help us think through our own contemporary crisis. He was incredibly provocative,” Blint said. To that end, one of the possible end results of the Year of Baldwin is a heightened awareness of the author’s social theories, which might help create a stronger community within New York. 

One of the central themes of Baldwin’s writings is understanding and reconciling different identities—both within himself and the city in which he lived—into a cohesive whole. In that way, Tóibín notes, Baldwin remains a salient author, especially if we hope to make sense of the current sociopolitical climate of the nation. 

“Obviously, if you’re African American or if you’re someone from outside the mainstream in America, he is a fascinating figure, but actually, it doesn’t matter who you are. ... He saw the story he was producing as our story, the shared story,” he said.

Blint echoed the sentiments of Tóibín, noting that “Given the current political juncture that we see in our society, what Baldwin said and witnessed meant that he was salient—pertinent to what we see now. His voice is necessary to help us think through our own contemporary crisis.” 

Modern-day social critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates continue to be struck by how relevant Baldwin remains to America and individual self-discovery. In an article published in the Atlantic, Coates noted that he picked up a copy of Baldwin’s collected essays and “hasn’t been the same since.” That being said, it’s a shame that Baldwin isn’t more widely read at the high school and collegiate level. 

For anyone who questions Baldwin’s relevance to contemporary politics: America is not a post-racial democracy, and Baldwin remains the key to understanding how to truly consolidate competing identities into a cohesive, loving whole. Although America is not as racially charged as it was during Baldwin’s era, there are still a number of lessons to glean from Baldwin’s works. 

As the festival’s name suggests, the Year of Baldwin builds upon our collective identity by hosting a series of events scattered all over the city. Additionally, the wide variety of events being held will help engage a wide variety of citizens, from artists to academics to students of all ages. 

“He [Baldwin] continues to be tremendously relevant and timely because of this great subject—the spiritual resilience achieved by opposing what he called the American ‘innocence’—the inability to suffer, grow up, and take responsibility for our collective future. ... This is a theme capable of uniting a city and certainly the festival is a step in that exciting direction,” Posnock said. 

neha.sundaram@columbiaspectator.com | @neha_sundaram

Corrections: An earlier version incorrectly stated that the street being named after James Baldwin is 127th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. It is actually 128th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues being renamed. Additionally, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Harlem Hospital is located on the block being renamed. It is actually located on 135th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues. An earlier version of this article also incorrectly stated that Rich Blint was helping direct a production of “Jimmy at High Noon” with Patricia McGregor. He is actually the show’s dramaturg. Additionally, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Carol Becker, dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts, would be in conversation with Colm Toíbín and Jake Gyllenhaal on May 1. She will not be part of the discussion, but will introducing it along with Farah Jasmine Griffin, Columbia’s William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American studies. Spectator regrets the errors.

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Anonymous posted on

There's a seminar in the English department on him. He's also one of the core writers in the American Studies department. There's a whole unit on him in one of the intro classes. He should be taught in CC though.

Also Ta-Nehisi Coates, for all he says, does not at all channel Baldwin in his writing. He takes his anger and nothing else.

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Anonymous posted on

do anybody know what time the street naming is going to be.

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