“James Baldwin’s America” continues to be one of the most popular and challenging discussion programs Humanities New York offer. Here, we check in with with Lindsey R. Swindall and Grant Cooper, two of the facilitators for the HNY Reading & Discussion groups, as they recount how the program has changed their lives and the communities they have worked in.
HNY: You talk in your essay about your initial encounter with Baldwin’s writing, and I’m wondering if there are any other experiences or history that you have reading Baldwin’s work, or moments that stand out to you that might have prompted your desire to share Baldwin with other people, or re-engage with Baldwin yourself.
LS: I was on my way to grad school when I read a bunch of his work and it really hit me in a powerful way, for one because no one had yet in my intellectual advancement had really talked about Baldwin, and I was amazed because I hadn’t really encountered him before, because he was clearly to me a very important voice, a very powerful voice. So when I got to grad school, when I was working on my dissertation about Paul Robeson, I encountered some other historic moments with Baldwin while researching my first book, which was on Paul Robeson’s three portrayals of Othello. And there was this celebration of Robeson in the 1960s at a time when a lot of people had kind of forgotten about him and he was considered kind of a earlier generation, and a lot of the radicals of the 60s didn’t know who Robeson was, and Baldwin speaks at this event. And so when I came across that speech, it really moved me yet again, and Baldwin spoke to this idea that Robeson was a voice that we still need to listen to. And he was speaking to a generation of young Civil Rights activists. And I quoted from that speech to conclude my book, because I thought no one could really say it better than Baldwin, right? That was another pivotal moment for me. For me, with Baldwin, it’s like you’ll encounter something, he sums up everything that you’ve been on the brink of saying, but he just articulates it so beautifully, and you go “yeah, yeah, that’s what I’ve been working toward and trying to figure out!”
GC: My experience working with Baldwin has been through working with Doc, Lindsey, here. Because when I was in high school, I did take African-American history–they just started it for us my senior year–neither Baldwin, nor Paul Robeson, was ever mentioned. Then I went straight to the military at seventeen and I was stationed at Charleston on a ship named after a Confederate general. So I got to see how deep racism can run in our country; even though I had experienced it being a young black man I was amazed at the depth, at how far it really went, when I was in the military.
So Doc and I started talking about Baldwin, and I read a little bit about Baldwin and I saw some videos of him on YouTube, and he was articulating what I had lived. I couldn’t say it as eloquently as he had; I don’t think anyone can really. There were a lot of parallels in Baldwin’s life to my life, like being the oldest and growing up in a religious home, kind of not fitting in, and he expressed that. And I like that he talks about, and of course I’m paraphrasing, if you really want to see where America is, just check how blacks are being treated, and that really stuck with me.
When I got hooked up with these charter schools and we started thinking about offering this to the kids it struck me in a powerful way because I wasn’t exposed to it, it was like a crime. And Doc and I agree on this a lot, about people’s interpretation of Baldwin, most times people don’t talk about how he preaches about love, and that’s the thing a lot of people seem to miss, that he ended everything with “the only way we’re going to change any of these things is with love.” And he’s known for being so angry, which he was, but he never, in my experience, he never used his anger to put anyone down or to say his point is right and there’s no other point. He always ended with love.
And we believe that ourselves. It’s hard, and I can tell you as a black man who was in the military, it’s very hard to come from a place of love when you’re so bitter and you’ve been wronged and when you bring that to the table, a lot of people can’t get past their own feelings. Baldwin to me articulates what I’ve always been practicing, which is that I know I’ve been through stuff, but it doesn’t matter if that’s all I’m ever going to talk about and preach about and argue about. And that’s my experience, and what makes me a Baldwin fan, and a Baldwin torchbearer, so to speak.
Read the full article “There is No Texting at James Baldwin’s Table”