Interview with Humanities New York

“There is No Texting at James Baldwin’s Table”

“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 rest of this interview…

Read the full article “There is No Texting at James Baldwin’s Table”


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A Note on Gratitude

Sleet is falling on top of a blanket of snow outside.  It is going to be a cold Thanksgiving holiday this year.  Winter weather bids us to stay indoors and recharge for the coming days that are sunny and clear.

I strongly identified with a recent editorial in the New York Times, “You Have a Right to Weariness”, as did, I imagine, many readers.  It is easy to feel weary in these times: the news assaults us each day with acts of violence and injustice, we fear for the environment, the future seems uncertain.  Too often, hostility and ignorance appear to be more alive than love and compassion in our country and our world.  Each days brings a new struggle in the unending quest for the forces of fairness, truth, and integrity.  Is there enough time to indulge our fatigue with rest? Yes. In fact, we must take time to rejuvenate physically and spiritually.

PortraitNext week, the holiday of Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to restore the spirit by focusing on gratitude.  The words of Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation creating this national day of thanks are pertinent to this end.  William Seward (writing for Lincoln) asserts that the year 1863, as it came to a close, had been “filled with the blessings for fruitful fields and healthful skies.”  Seriously?  This was the year that thousands died at Chickamauga, at Vicksburg, at Gettysburg.  Draft riots left many injured and property destroyed in New York City.  A bread riot in Richmond revealed the extent of the starvation in the South.  Nevertheless, Seward steadily enumerates the positive: industry progressed, the plow produced food, mines revealed minerals, the population grew.  Despite everything, there were many “gracious gifts” from “the Most High God” to recognize.

Looking for the gifts for which to offer thanks does not ignore the problems that need attention.  Rather, gratitude refills the spirit.  And we must care for our own restoration along the way as the struggle continues.  Democracy is a journey.  Justice is a continuously unfolding path.  They are never complete.  So we, who are bringers of light, must refill our lamps along the way.

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There is No Texting at James Baldwin’s Table, Part One

Part one of my two articles about facilitating community discussions about race and American culture through the life and writing of James Baldwin has just been published in the international journal James Baldwin Review (Manchester University Press, UK).  It was truly a joy to work with the editors at JBR on my piece “There is No Texting at James Baldwin’s Table.”

JBR 2018This article is the product of several years of work starting with a grant from Humanities New York for an adult reading and discussion group on Baldwin and leading to a program with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities’ Public Scholars Project.  Over the past two years, my co-facilitor Grant Cooper and I have been engaging the public through Baldwin’s writing.  As the number of our events on Baldwin grew, the editors of JBR generously suggested that I write two articles in order to assess the public response to Baldwin we encountered as we talked with audiences around New York City and across the state of New Jersey.

Upon embarking on this project, we never could have predicted how current events like the 2016 presidential election, Raoul Peck’s film about Baldwin, Colin Keapernick’s protest, uproar over Confederate monuments, and a myriad of other issues would touch people and subsequently animate our conversations.  Baldwin understood that love can transform our broken, yet potentially extraordinary, society if we allow it to do its refining work.  I have been continuously grateful to bear witness to the sincerity and authenticity which our audiences have brought to our discussions.  These are cornerstones of love’s power.

“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.  Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”  James Baldwin in “In Search of a Majority”


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Thank you, Aretha.

When I was in graduate school, I taught as an adjunct at several colleges in western Massachusetts.  My car was old – it still had a tape deck – and I listened to a lot of mix tapes on those drives.  My tape with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Me Oh My” among others by Aretha Franklin got worn out and broke one sad day.  Even today those songs take me back to the winding roads around Amherst.

No doubt like many people around the world today, I’ve spent the morning listening to Aretha Franklin’s music.  I am wondering what makes one so sad when we lose someone whom we didn’t know personally.  My only response is that when a great artist goes, we are reminded of all of the reasons that their art elevated us.  Great art reveals the vast depth of human potential.  That is exciting, joyous, delightful.  If eyes are the window to one’s soul, then great art functions like a window into our own divine nature.  Surely, we think, Aretha’s voice must have come from a sacred place.

It is that place where Mozart’s concertos, Shakespeare’s soliloquies, Paul Robeson’s spirituals, Handel’s oratorios ….. all originated.  Great art not only touches our spirits, it reminds us that we all have inside of us a spark of the eternal flame that is divine.  Our great artists are like a bridge that help us to touch that place in ourselves that is most precious.  They remind us of the human capacity to create something which is truly beautiful and uniquely authentic.  It is natural to mourn the loss of one our intermediaries to the divine.  However, their passing does not change the light and love they created through their art.  Like the divine spark that is in each of us, it is everlasting.

Check out the Operavore on Aretha Franklin.


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On Revolution

–“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.  This world is a place of business.  thoreauWhat an infinite bustle!  I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive.  It interrupts my dreams.  There is no sabbath.  It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once.  It is nothing but work, work, work. … I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.”

Henry David Thoreau reflected on the “infinite bustle” of life back in 1854 in “Life Without Principle”.  I like to present that quote to students and ask when they think it was written.  They are usually surprised at when it was written.  Except perhaps for the use of the term locomotive, it sounds as if it could be contemporary.  If the Transcendentalists were concerned that life was zooming by too quickly, what does that mean for us today?  We live in a time that makes the 1850s seem comparatively sleepy.

emersonRalph Waldo Emerson reminds us in “The American Scholar” that it is important to reflect upon the moment in which we live.  It can be difficult to have enough objective distance to read one’s own times.  But, he writes, “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.”  Knowing what to do with it is the part of that statement that can penetrate the spirit.  How can we know?  Emerson would, I think, urge us to listen to our inner selves, to nature to hear the missive for our times.

Next week this nation celebrates the severing of ties with Great Britain in 1776.  Thirteen fledgling colonies on the Atlantic ocean declaring independence from the constraints of empire was a revolutionary act.  What actions are revolutionary in our times?  In a time that is inundated with information, quietude is revolutionary.  In a time when public reaction strikes like lightning, pausing to think slowly is revolutionary.  In a time when 280 character responses are expected, writing deeply is revolutionary.  In a time of infinite distraction, reflecting enough to truly “know thyself”, as Socrates advised, is revolutionary.  We will never know “what to do with” our times, as Emerson wrote, if we don’t know ourselves.

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Music and History Class Intersect

Never had I imagined that something as mundane as reading final exams would inspire a blog post.  Every spring I teach the second half of the US History survey (since 1865).  Teaching at an engineering university means that I get a lot of upperclassmen who are just filling in their last humanities credit.  So I like to find ways to change it and keep it fresh for both the students and myself.  The road to grading this pile of exams began in January.

On the first day of class I spent some time trying to sell them on attending an event or two in a special series sponsored by Carnegie Hall that dovetailed nicely with our semester titled The Sixties: The Years that changed America.  (The exhibit at the New York Public Library continues through September 1.)  I offered extra credit to anyone who attended an event and wrote a reflection essay on the content.  I also showed the trailer for the film from the Monterrey Pop Festival which was playing in the city at that time.  Playing some music from that festival at the opening of class inspired me to continue that each class session.

Over the weeks, we listened to pieces of music that correlated with time periods that we discussed in class.  For example, we heard African American spirituals, early Blues, ragtime, and jazz.  We also listened to part of “The New World Symphony” and marked the recent passing of trumpeter Hugh Masekela.  This routine of opening class with music was derailed somewhat by the number of snow days we had this semester (which put us behind slightly) but we finished strong with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” when discussing the 1960s – the early 1980s.  (I like to use the Geto Boys’ “Fuck a War” and NWA’s “Fuck the Police” with chapters on the 1980s and 90s.  In addition to being socially significant, hearing the word “fuck” in these songs wakes students up at 8:30am!)

On the final exam, as a result of these musical interludes, I asked the students to write about any song that they think best illuminates or comments upon the present moment in American culture.  I was hoping for some essays that would make for different, perhaps even interesting, reading.  The responses and the students’ analysis offered much more than I had anticipated.  I learned about songs I had never heard and got insight into the students’ perspective on the current political climate.   Students wrote about songs including Eminem’s “Untouchable”, “The Currents” by the band Bastille, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA” (which was a nice callback to our discussion of “Born in the USA”).

However, the majority of the students wrote about Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino’s “This is America”.  I thought I was having a senior moment having not seen or heard of this video, but, it turned out that in a beautiful act of synchronicity the video was released just a few days before my students took their history exam.  This campus tends to be pretty conservative politically; however, I can say without hesitation that this song, which has become a number one hit, definitely resonated with my students.  Many of them wrote fine essays contextualizing the content of the song with our semester’s long discussion of social movements.  A number of them noted the importance of politically motivated art in giving voice to injustice.  One student said that as a result of this class, he now understood that social progress is a long road but music can help raise awareness along the way.  Well said.  If you haven’t already, check out the video.


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120 Years Ago Today …

… Paul Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey.

Tonight Grant Cooper and I will be facilitating a community discussion on the life and writing of James Baldwin at the public library in Union, New Jersey.  Talking about Baldwin on Robeson’s birthday put me in mind of a birthday event in April 1965 at which Baldwin, and other luminaries, offered reflections on Robeson’s career as an artist and activist.  The event was hosted by Freedomways journal, a periodical that chronicled the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

At the birthday event Baldwin observed, “[I]n the days when it seemed that there was no possibility of applying the rigors of conscience, Paul Robeson spoke in a great voice ….”

Both of these men still speak to us today in a great voice.  Let’s hope that our society is ready to listen.

Happy Birthday, Paul Robeson.


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