This essay presents the idea of James Baldwin as a freedom writer, the organizing idea of
my biography in progress. As a freedom writer, Baldwin was a revolutionary intellectual,
an essayist and novelist committed unfailingly to the realization of racial justice,
interracial political equality, and economic democracy. While the book is still in
process, this short essay narrates autobiographically how I came to meet and know
Baldwin’s work, explains in critical fashion my work in relation to existing biographies,
and reflects interpretively my thoughts-in- progress on this fascinating and captivating
figure of immense historical and social consequence.
Clearly there is a unique hunger for Baldwin’s wisdom in this historical moment, as illustrated by Raoul Peck’s film, reprints of several Baldwin books, exhibits, and other events. This essay describes the genesis of two five-part public discussions on the works of James Baldwin that were co-facilitated by African-American Studies scholar Dr. Lindsey R. Swindall and actor Grant Cooper at two schools in New York City in the 2016–17 academic year. These discussion series led to numerous Baldwin discussion events being scheduled for the winter and spring of 2018. The surprising popularity of these programs prompted Swindall to wonder: Why do people want to discuss Baldwin now? The first of two parts, this essay speculates that many people in the digital age long for a conversational space like the one Baldwin created at the “welcome table” in his last home in France. The second essay—which is forthcoming—will confirm whether discussion events held in 2018 harmonize with the welcome table thesis.
Last year, in the dispatch “There Is No Texting at James Baldwin’s
Table,” I began to assess the ways in which audiences were engaging with
Baldwin’s writing at several public discussions that I co-facilitated
with NYC actor/comedian Grant Cooper. Based on the initial reaction to two
five-part Baldwin conversations at a high school and middle school in Manhattan,
I posited that a need for meaningful communion is drawing people to discuss the
writer. As I wrote that article, I was busy scheduling seven new Baldwin
discussions in communities across New Jersey and another five-part series in
Manhattan. Having completed those sessions, I am pleased to report that
Baldwin’s welcome table is indeed a powerful vehicle for engaging in
impactful dialogue. This dispatch will demonstrate that discussing Baldwin not
only opened an avenue for productive sharing but went further by inspiring
people to ask how they could contribute to hastening positive social and
personal transformation. Three questions will frame this analysis of putting the
welcome table into practice: How many people want to sit at James
Baldwin’s table? Can conversations about James Baldwin sustain more
“welcome table moments”? Can these interactions create a sense of
kinship that deepens personal interaction in the digital age?
, Brother’s Keeper .
15 Whitham, Bitter Rehearsal , p. 113; National Records and Archives Administration (NARA), College Park, Maryland, USA, RG 43 UD 07D 82, Box 3 A1–5c.
16 J. Parker, “‘Capital of the Caribbean’: the African American–West Indian ‘Harlem Nexus’ and the transnational drive for black freedom, 1940–1948”, The Journal of AfricanAmericanHistory 89 (2004), 98–117.
17 Parker, Brother’s Keeper ; Whitham, Bitter Rehearsal , pp. 38–45; Fraser, Ambivalent Anti