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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

James Baldwin and Metanarratives

 James Baldwin and Metanarratives

August 2, 2017 will the 93rd  anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth in Harlem Hospital.  December 1, 2017 will mark the 30th anniversary of his successful escape from the penitentiary of languages.  Between 1924 and 1987, Baldwin paid the price of his ticket, using his intelligence, his ethical and moral authority, his haunted eyes,  and his tragicomic imagination to create a legacy.   That legacy has been transformed by cultural theories and practices into  a gumbo. It mixes the flavors of extreme American neo-liberalism with the filé of an evangelical religiosity and a teaspoon of essential nationalism.  The resulting soup (which might not pass muster in a strict construction of Louisiana cuisine) is being advertised as the cure-all for the current, dominant American malaise.  Like any cure-all, the legacy has a telling effect, but it proves ultimately to be ineffectual.  To discover what is, without doubt, authentic in Baldwin's legacy (Henry James would have called it "the real thing"), we ought to go back to that other country whence came the ingredients.

It is as useful to think of the spaces we inhabit as locations in a panoptical prison as it is to consider those places as coordinates on a stage.  Actors and inmates have a shared existence with people who exercise obscene power and people who live and die unaccounted for in the scribbling of history. You and they and I are condemned and incarcerated by bondage, enslavement.  Had James Baldwin not recognized as much, he might never have said to Quincy Troupe  

                It's difficult to be a legend.  It's hard for me to recognize me.  You spend a lot of time trying to                 avoid it. A lot of the time I've been through so many of the same experiences Miles has gone        through.  It's really something, to be a legend, unbearable.  I could see it had happened to Miles.               Again, it's unbearable, the way the world treats you is unbearable, and especially if you're black.             (189)

[Troupe, Quincy, ed. James Baldwin: The Legacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989]

 As Baldwin knew by way flesh and blood experiences and moral consciousness, or quickly learned after he left the United States for Europe in 1948, if we want sanctuary  ----well, we have to work and create our own versions of damnation/ salvation by virtue of cognition and perception.

We produce metanarratives (narratives about narratives) as we read Baldwin's fictions and essays, witness a production of one of his plays, and view documentaries about his life or videos of his interviews and speeches.  We normally don't talk about metanarratives.  We talk with other people about our reactions something Baldwin wrote or how his body language and use of his eyes drew more than casual notice to what he was saying.  To speak of our reactions as metanarratives is to disturb the commonplace, to highlight that our reactions to artists and their works belong to special categories of feeling and thinking.  Growth of interest in Baldwin derives, in part, from jouissance.

Interest in Baldwin has increased remarkably since 2000, particularly in efforts to appropriate his legacy more for cultural discussion than for political analysis, i.e. rewriting histories of the Civil Rights Movement.  We come to a high point in 2015 with Toni Morrison's assertive  blurb for Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015): "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.  Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."  Morrison oiled the machinery for redemptive jouissance, made it less creaky.  The newer appreciations for Baldwin were preceded by a broadening of academic criticism.  There is a slight danger, Douglas Field noted in All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), "that some criticism veers toward a dissipated picture of Baldwin as a writer who is 'post-categorical' and without any cohesion" (145).  For Field, the criticism assigns Baldwin to an "uncertain place in American literature"(146).  The best and brightest American writers inhabit that place where their portraits are not dissipated and their legacies pulsate in defiance of being turned into museum objects.  Cultural memory of Baldwin is equipment for living. It can be enhanced by reading the online, open access James Baldwin Review 

I offer two examples of  metanarratives-in-progress.


The book is short  --- 25 pages of introductory material + 109 pages of text and images + 1 blank verso + 2 pages of CREDITS +1 page of BIBLIOGRAPHY + 1 blank verso +  1 page of PERMISSIONS +1 blank verso +2 pages listing ILLUSTRATIONS   ---   a total of 143 pages to be read at one sitting.

Peck, Raoul, ed. I Am Not Your Negro: From Texts by James Baldwin.  New York: Vintage International, 2017.

As the companion for Peck's film I Am Not Your Negro (2016), the book is a  mosaic of Baldwin's unfinished "Notes Toward Remember This House, " snippets from other works by Baldwin, images and quotations from television and film,  and slivers of song lyrics.

One does not read the mosaic.  One consumes it.   Consumption is contingent on whether one begins that task   before or after viewing the film.  Dealing with the book before seeing the film prepares one to listen to Baldwin's voice, Samuel Jackson's narration, and other archived sounds with more than usual attention and to attend with passionate interest to the film's visual rhetoric. Using the book after witnessing the film helps one to check nuances that one's eyes and ears missed or misinterpreted in the darkened cave of a cinema.  These diverging affective and efferent experiences reveal much about the processing of past and contemporary information, much about how one's mind navigates sight and sound.  How one contextualizes Peck's manipulation of Baldwin's legacy.

Witnessing is all.  In the cliché-saturated ambience of "# Matters,"  moral judgment is a vexed affair. That is to say the circumstances under which one witnesses Peck's reconstructive witnessing of Baldwin's unfinished effort to locate the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  matters greatly.  One's age, ethnic identity, citizenship, and depth of interest in the conditions of being human are crucial in finding meaning and significance in the film and book versions of I Am Not Your Negro.  They determine, to paraphrase Peck, whether it is possible to have "a deep and intimate personal reflection on [one's] own political and cultural mythology, [one's] own experiences of racism and intellectual violence" (xi).

When a friend suggested we should set up a panel discussion of I Am Not Your Negro after viewing the film,   I objected.  The only panels that have practical legitimacy, as far as I am concerned, are those constituted by people who belong temporarily to a community of seeing and hearing at one time and in one place.  Members of such a nonce community should tell one another, not be told by a panel of critics and experts,  what is important about what and how  the film galvanized them to think and to feel, and perhaps to vow to do.   Raoul Peck's commendable interventions by way of film and book demand multiple and quite diverse enactments of community, an investment in being human that the first quarter of the 21st century tries daily to assassinate.  James Baldwin's gift of brutal confrontation demands nothing more and nothing less if the world's population is to defeat all enemies by saying "I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO" and acting accordingly.


Discussion Notes:

Ashé Cultural Arts Center   6:00 p.m., May 11, 2017

Karen Thorsen, director & co-writer

Douglas Dempsy, co-writer

James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

Length of film ---1 hour, 27 minutes

PBS American Masters ---14 August 1989

James Baldwin (2 August 1924-1 December 1987)

We have a great deal to watch, to listen to, to think about, to discuss.

Between May 9th  and  12th , the digital restoration of James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket was screened at three locations in New Orleans ---Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, The Old US Mint, and Ashé Cultural Arts Center.  The James Baldwin Project (access ) has sponsored screenings at many sites across the United States. 

The film aired for the first time on August 14, 1989 as part of the PBS American Masters series.  Now the citizens of New Orleans had an opportunity to produce their metanarratives through conversations after each screening with musicians, community people, National Park Service rangers, and the filmmakers Karen Thorsen and Douglas Dempsey.  At Ashé, Monica McIntyre's lyrics and music established a mood for viewing the documentary  ------I'm thinking of Cassandra Wilson's innovative performances for no apparent reason as I listen to McIntyre.  For one hour and twenty-seven minutes, we sat enthralled by the film.  We sat transfixed as the devil found work.  I moderated the conversation that followed.

Most of the metanarratives were about feelings ----amazement that the film was as relevant to the Age of Trump as it had been to the final years of the Cold War; testimony that the film induced a state of balance (a catharsis) grating against an assertion that the film galvanized the amoeboid concerns of #Black Lives Matter; recommendations that the film be part of a national conversation, that it be used in public schools and community spaces to promote face-to-face discussions; concern that social networking magnifies emotion and diminishes critical thinking about social problems;  pointed questions for Thorsen about the genesis and making of the film.

There was  my own "losing it" by way of giving a mini-lecture on Baldwin's prophetic moral authority.  Moderators ought not lecture; they should manage.  My memory of having had a late night conversation with Baldwin in the 1980s undermined my sticking to the script, but my transgression had a purpose.  I wanted my fellow citizens to know that the price of our tickets was further remembering of history (the process and the stories)  and  contextualizing the film by using our individual sociocultural literacies, of constructing metanarratives of moral ambiguity.  I wanted them to reconsider the gravity of Baldwin's having shaped his legacy and his legend within the narrow space of a black-white American social binary, minimizing how the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Asian immigrants actually fit into the American past, present, and promised future.  My metanarrative focused most on Baldwin's helping us to know why, at least for the so-called Western sector of humanity, the implacable anger of the Old Testament God is more important than the bromides of Christian love that flavor Baldwin's splendid legacy.

I Am Not Your Negro challenges and is challenged by James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.  But that is my opinion.  Watch both of the films.  Think.  Generate your own metanarrative.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            May 16, 2017

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