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Having returned to the United States to work on his screenplay about Malcolm X, James Baldwin was interviewed for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1968. The interview offers a rare and valuable glimpse of Baldwin’s style of engagement with a new generation of radical Black activists whose current vogue Baldwin understood as valuable, whose new appraisal of history Baldwin had both helped to create and needed to learn from, and whose dangerous predicament Baldwin recognized and felt partly responsible for. Ed Pavlić provides a contextual and historical introduction to that interview, which is reproduced here with permission from the Free Press.
This article delves into James Baldwin’s work and experience in the pivotal year 1968. Working with archival materials and granular contexts that are still not a full part of our understanding of Baldwin’s story, this article paints a fuller and more nuanced portrait of Baldwin’s position astraddle cultural cross-currents that were in volatile and often violent relationship to each other and at times to themselves. The “sixties” were ending in flames as Baldwin had forecast at the outset of the decade. Baldwin was based in California, often in transit to New York and London, working in ways that were at once high-profile and underground—to the extent that we’re only now seeing real evidence of some of these conversations. The result is a fuller account of how Baldwin developed and deployed his gifts with risk-taking generosity and intergenerational brilliance during one of the most volatile years of the twentieth century in the United States and beyond.
Spurred on by Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Nickel Boys (2019), which is set in Tallahassee, FL, during the 1950s and 1960s, this essay presents a close-up look at James Baldwin’s visit to Tallahassee in May 1960. Moving between Baldwin’s writings about the South, especially “They Can’t Turn Back,” published by Mademoiselle magazine in August 1960, and subsequent writing about the movement in Tallahassee, and checking off against Whitehead’s fictional treatment, we find a lattice of silences obscuring the names and contributions of Black women. Most importantly, we find that the historic case of the rape of Betty Jean Owens in May 1959, and the subsequent trial that summer, appears neither in Baldwin’s nor Whitehead’s writing about Tallahassee at the time. This essay establishes the missing names of Black women in the places marked and unmarked by Baldwin in his work at the time, and puts the case of Betty Jean Owens on the historical map where it belongs. In so doing, we figure issues of race, gender, sex, and violence for the ways they twist together, ways suppressed in historical (and even some contemporary) writing, ways crucial to our deepening consideration of Baldwin’s work and the history which he drew upon and to which he contributed so profoundly.
Based on a recent, archival discovery of the script, “But Amen is the Price” is the first substantive writing about James Baldwin’s collaboration with Ray Charles, Cicely Tyson, and others in a performance of musical and dramatic pieces. Titled by Baldwin, “The Hallelujah Chorus” was performed in two shows at Carnegie Hall in New York City on 1 July 1973. The essay explores how the script and presentation of the material, at least in Baldwin’s mind, represented a call for people to more fully involve themselves in their own and in each other’s lives. In lyrical interludes and dramatic excerpts from his classic work, “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin addressed divisions between neighbors, brothers, and strangers, as well as people’s dissociations from themselves in contemporary American life. In solo and ensemble songs, both instrumental and vocal, Ray Charles’s music evinced an alternative to the tradition of Americans’ evasion of each other. Charles’s sound meant to signify the history and possibility of people’s attainment of presence in intimate, social, and political venues of experience. After situating the performance in Baldwin’s personal life and public worldview at the time and detailing the structure and content of the performance itself, “But Amen is the Price” discusses the largely negative critical response as a symptom faced by much of Baldwin’s other work during the era, responses that attempted to guard “aesthetics” generally—be they literary, dramatic, or musical—as class-blind, race-neutral, and apolitical. The essay presents “The Hallelujah Chorus” as a key moment in Baldwin’s search for a musical/literary form, a way to address, as he put it, “the person and the people,” in open contention with the social and political pressures of the time.
Black music played a crucial role in the work and life of James Baldwin. What Baldwin heard in the music guided his sense of political reality and human possibility, his invention of character, his shifting analytical point of view, and his decisions about what to do, when, and how to do it during his life in private and career in public. The music, therefore, also offers his critics and his readers important insight and guidance in their own experience and interpretation of his work. This brief essay accounts for some of the most basic connections between Baldwin and black music; it serves here as an introduction to a list of songs, some of which offered Baldwin important guidance and some of which offer his readers access to deeper meanings in his work. A playlist of songs, curated by Ed Pavlić and Justin A. Joyce, is available on YouTube at www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtSYQ5bCX-C-IZkeQ_PX7ncsbdjI32HSy