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The New "Ugly Americans"

James Baldwin, Digitally Yours

by CECIL BROWN

Schwarzes Cafe 

Berlin, Germany

I have just left the James Baldwin Conference (June 5-7)–James Baldwin:Transatlantic Commuter — in Montpellier, France. This was a meeting of scholars and professors who teach Baldwin in Europe and America. They came from universities as far away as Finland, Russia, Germany. Of the fifty-seven participants, only about thirteen were African Americans.

Nevertheless,  it  was reassuring to see that professors (white or black, foreign or native) were still teaching his work in a time when hardly anybody is reading anything any more, whether in American or  Europe.

Indeed, this conference showed how the digital era has affected the reading habits of the entire Western world. Several of the panels were devoted to the digitization of Baldwin’s work. In the “James Baldwin Digital Annotation Project,” Professor Nicholas Baham (from California State University) showed us maps and diagrams of the author’s novels. In yet another panel, entitled “Mapping,” we learned from Jean-Paul Rocchi (University Paris-East) about the “Spatiotextual Relocations” in Baldwin’s work; Emma Cleary (Staffordshire University) informed us about “Baldwin’s Intimate Cartographies.”

The professors and academics indulged themselves in theories and data deduced from Baldwin’s texts. Panel after panel, speaker after speaker presented diagrams, visualizations, maps and mapping, and spacial analyzes of about Baldwin’s characters and plots.

Professor Douglas Field (Manchester University) gave a smart talk (“James Baldwin and the FBI”) told us how the authorities made the writer miserable. Professor Field told me and a small group that he had broken into Baldwin’s villa in St Paul De Vence in order to photograph the interiors in his effort to find clues to Baldwin’s genius. I did not think that was a particularly nice thing to do, but it indicates the extent that scholars will go to information about James Baldwin.

Another favorite topic was “Queerness.” Dennis Tyler (Fordham University) lectured from his essay entitle, “Brother to Brother: Black Queer Intimacy and Incest in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.”  The lecture by Gabrielle Roy (New York University) was called “Imagining Home and Queering Borders” in
brownpryorBaldwin’s work.

After the subject of queerness, the other favorite topic was Mr. Baldwin’s life itself. Professor Magdalena Zaborowska (University of Michigan) gave us a detailed account of his time in Istanbul.

David Leeming, who was a friend of Mr. Baldwin’s, gave a powerful summary of the life and themes of Mr. Baldwin’s career. But then Mr. Leeming, whom I had met with Baldwin several times, had the advantage of writing from having known his subject.

It would seem that after all of these new media approaches to this great author, we would feel more connected to him than we did at the end of the conference. But very little of all this had anything to do with James Baldwin himself.

(In terms of getting to know who Mr. Baldwin was, there was a short video about Baldwin’s first “mentor” presented by Lynn Orilla Scott (Michigan State University.) When he was ten years old, Baldwin’s teacher, called “Bill” by Mr. Baldwin, took him under her wings. Mr. Baldwin never forgot the influence of this white lady and stated in touch with her through out his life).

There are some advantages of new media and the digitalization of literary texts. The film maker Karen Thorsen,  whose film biography, The Price of the Ticket, is the best film biography of Baldwin, explained that she was going to reedit her film (that is, digitize it)because the old celluloid version is falling apart, for technical reason.

Although digital techniques have their place in evaluating Baldwin’s work, most of the scholars had never met Mr. Baldwin and this seems to have been an advantage. Not ever having met Mr. Baldwin seems to be an advantage for professors and academics teaching him. The less they know about him, the better to play with “cool” digital  techniques.

One particular panel seem to exemplify this more than most. This was the panel  in which Professors Monica Miller (Lehigh University) and Christopher Driscoll (Rice University)  presented a joint paper called  “N**as in Paris: Diasporic Travels and the Omnipresence of American Racism.”

Reciting snatches of lyrics from Jay Z’s text, “N**as In Paris,”  they compared him to Baldwin’s prose writings and concluded that both men were victims of racism in Paris. It is true that Jay Z and Mr. Baldwin are black men, but that is where the comparisons stop. When Mr. Baldwin came to Paris, he was poor and rejected by his countrymen. When Jay Z (and Kanye West and Oprah Winfrey) come to Paris, they come with pockets full of cash.  When Mr. Baldwin came to Paris, he had to learn French and associate with French people. As I travel today though Europe, I meet ordinary people who still remember him and other African American writers and artists (like Chester Himes, Melvin Van Peebles, William Gardner Smith, Frank Yerby, Ronald Fair and others) who became a part of what Europeans regarded as a positive aspect of the American culture.

In what sense are Kanye West, Jay Z, Ophra Winfrey “ni**as in Paris”? The French people I talked to do not see Jay Z with the same respect that they attribute to Mr. Baldwin. Mr. Baldwin is in the tradition of Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre—a master of letters. But Jay Z is an entertainer whose millions depend on the digital technology that has changed the world for all of us – and changed it, for some of us, for the worse.

As for accounting for Mr. Baldwin’s genius, most of these academics missed the point of Mr. Baldwin’s texts. He did not write essays because they were data to be used for professors to justify their universities paying their way to the South of France, no matter how attractive the idea. As I sit here in the Schwarzes Cafe in Berlin, I take as much time that is necessary to formulate a sentence. Mr. Baldwin’s pauses between sentences allowed him to recollect his thoughts in tranquillity. Sometimes these pauses extended to pauses between essays. He began “Stranger in the Village” one year; took a long pause and finished it the next year.

I visited him in the South of France, in St Paul De Vence, in 1972, when I was 27.  Mr. Baldwin let me in on his writing style. He learned to write in cafes in Paris. He learned to sit for hours, with long pauses between sentences, for example. Today due to the speed of the electric culture, we do not have the same kind of patience for writing.  Once when I was visiting him, Mr. Baldwin read to me the essay “There Be Dragons” and told me he hated the term “Queer”.

In short, what would Mr. Baldwin have thought of all this digitalization? He likely would have laughed loudly. He would have acknowledged that these attempts were about the best they could do–and then he would forgiven them.

As for the necessity of breaking into Mr. Baldwin’s  boarded up villa to get closer to the writer, I wonder why some of these rich hip-hop icons like Jay Z, who boasts of their wealth, do not buy it and establish it as a retreat for writers and artist. If Jay Z is truly a victim of discrimination, why doesn’t he and other black super-rich stars put their money where their mouths are?

In 1971, I introduced Mr. Bill Cosby to Mr. Baldwin, and he visited Mr. Baldwin’s house and sat at his “Welcoming Table.”  I met Professor Henry Lewis Gates at Mr. Baldwin’s “Welcoming table.”

If Mr. Baldwin is such a treasure to the African American intellectuals, why isn’t more respect paid to him by the new generation of hip-hop stars like Jay Z, Kanye West, and Dr. Dre, who just brokered a 3,2 billion dollar deal for Apple to buy his company Beat Electronics?

In any case, the next James Baldwin conference should be about James Baldwin as a writer’s writer. The academics and professors should not be the only ones to appreciate this great force in modern culture.

Post script: I thank Claudine Raynaud (Paul Valery University) and Quentin Miller (Suffolk University), who organized the conference, for inviting me.

Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.