19: This Month in Black History – James Baldwin

By: Bruce Mills

Over the past few years, the words of novelist, playwright, essayist, and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) have been prominent in our national dialogue. Creating his documentary from Baldwin’s writings and interviews, Raoul Peck received an academy award nomination for I Am Not Your Negro in 2016. Two years later, Barry Jenkins wrote and directed If Beale Street Could Talk based on the novel of the same name. From brief references to full articles on Baldwin in a range of sites such as theGrio, New York Times, and The Atlantic, we can see how broadly his voice informs discussions of race.

That Baldwin’s work is experiencing a renaissance is not surprising given his incisive, humane, radical, and intimate insights on what it means to navigate private and public spaces as a gay Black man in America. For this installment of the 19th series, I wish to offer a snapshot of how the life and writing of James Baldwin intersected with Kalamazoo College.

Baldwin at K
Invited by members of the English Department, Baldwin came to campus in mid-November 1960 where he delivered a talk on “the novel” and an address in the lecture series “Goals on the American Society.” By this time in his career, he had published an autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a first play, The Amen Corner (1954), an essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni’s Room (1956).

During his week-long stay, he met with students, faculty, and staff during lunches, dinners, “fireside” chats, and in English classes. Archival photos of his visit show him in conversation with faculty and students in Hicks and in K’s WJMD radio studio. In this latter picture, we can see a copy of Notes of a Native Son. In astutely examining the legacy of white supremacy in America and abroad as well as his own experiences growing up in Harlem, Baldwin emerged as one of the country’s premier essayists. And, with the publication of The Fire Next Time in January of 1963, he was recognized as one of the leading writers, intellectuals, and activists of the 1960s, sharing the stage, often quite literally, with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other well- and lesser-known individuals battling for civil rights.

But the lasting presence of his voice at K came through the publication of his campus address, “In Search of a Majority,” in Nobody Knows My Name (1961). Called upon to speak on “minority rights,” he flips the script. In front of a nearly all White audience, he began with these reflections: “I am supposed to speak this evening on the goals of American society as they involve minority rights, but what I am really going to do is to invite you to join me in a series of speculations. Some of them are dangerous, some of them painful, all of them reckless.” He concluded this opening with the following assertion: “It seems to me that before we can begin to speak of minority rights in this country, we’ve got to make some attempt to isolate or to define the majority.”

Baldwin then asked his White listeners to learn of their own history, to reflect upon the evolution of White identity, and thus to resist the tendency to seek absolution through some redemptive story of Black life. Running through his talk is a central strand of Baldwin’s ongoing reflections on America. “The great force of history,” he would write in “The White Man’s Guilt” (1965), “comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

This is why he invites the Kalamazoo College audience of 1960 to understand “minority” as a definition constructed by and for the “majority.” In effect, history teaches that a White majority marks their status on a kind of racial ladder. The question for Baldwin is not who am I (as a “minority” in American society) but who, exactly, are you (as a so-called “majority”)? He asks, how have you constructed me? What desires or fears drive the failure to account for my human weight and complexity, something that he explores in “Stranger in the Village,” the concluding essay in Notes of a Native Son.

What so many current readers—Black, Brown, and White—hear in James Baldwin is a truth telling. Of course, different audiences will receive and interpret these truths from the varied spaces of their own lived experiences and histories. To end, then, it seems fitting to return to what those at the College heard from the final lines of “In Search of a Majority” sixty years ago. As with any truth, they stitch together past, present, and future. Listen:

…and I want to suggest this: that the majority for which everyone is seeking which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man may be—this majority is you. No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.

These messages are aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture, and are brought to you by The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team, as we continue to work towards being an anti-racist Institution. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African slaves were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, marks the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outside of the Black community. We need to understand that much of the “surprise” experienced by many at the continued uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department

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