James Baldwin is directly connected to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane in my mind, thanks to the 90-minute documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. When the Paris section of the film starts, you see mid-20th-century black-and-white footage of a security guard opening huge iron gates that lead to the Eiffel Tower while Ellington and Coltrane’s recording of “In a Sentimental Mood” fills the mind and the screen.
The film means the world to me. I’ve seen it about 20 times. The first time was when it aired on PBS’ American Masters, an artist-profile documentary series, around 1990. It unquestionably changed the direction of my life. When my hometown hero, Amiri Baraka, eulogized Baldwin in an early scene, proclaiming for the ages, “He lived his life as witness. He wrote until the end. … Let our black hearts grow big absorbing eyes like his, never closed,” my 22-year-old local-newspaper-reporter sense of the world expanded, and my purpose was set.
A quarter of a century of advanced degrees, massive debt and many, many lonely days and nights behind a computer screen followed. The search for moments of spiritual communion with my champion, the attempts to find and grasp all the (musical and handwritten) notes now embedded, have been only partially successful.
So it was not optional for me to attend the James Baldwin International Conference, sponsored by the American University of Paris. Nor did it seem to be for the group of about 240 scholars, activists, artists and just plain folks of all races and places who, over this past weekend, just wanted to take in some of the man’s and the city’s cultural-historical energy between gulps of cheese, ham, bread and wine.
Maxine Gordon, the widow and in-process biographer of the jazz legend Dexter, was there. So was the renowned poet Jessica Care moore, whom I last saw when she practically split apart Baraka’s 2014 funeral with her eulogy. But so were many black hip-hop-gen scholars, like Natalie Graham, assistant professor of African-American studies at California State University, Fullerton, who explained that she had done some academic work comparing Baldwin’s use of narrative voice, especially in his novel Giovanni’s Room, with the work of Kendrick Lamar, the man called hip-hop’s Coltrane. The conference organizers, Alice Craven and William Dow, referred to “Baldwin studies,” a term I had never heard before. It was that kind of confab, melding art performance with academic pedagogy, history with literature and, as was discussed in many of its 44 panel discussions, Baldwin with his 21st-century héritier présomptif, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The Baldwin kaleidoscope of shattered barriers reflected throughout the weekend. On the Thursday-night opening plenary panel on the state of “Baldwin studies,” Magdalena J. Zaborowska, a full professor in the department of American culture at the University of Michigan, reminded the audience that Baldwin is an “ancestor of sexual minorities.” He broke the binaries of black and white, straight and LGBTQ, she said. His life and work, she summarized, was one of resistance to categorization. During the panel discussion Friday of Baldwin’s work as a playwright and journalist, Pekka Kilpeläinen, an academy research fellow of the University of Eastern Finland’s department of English language and culture, talked about how Baldwin’s worldview transcended America and its narrow cultural ideals in his last (and unfinished) play, The Welcome Table.
At an American Embassy keynote Friday, Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, cautioned about the dangers of trying to imitate Baldwin’s level of accomplishment. “I’m worried about you” was his refrain, because of the obvious pitfalls of being “haunted” by a chosen extraordinary conqueror. He wanted the group to step out of Baldwin’s shadow just long enough to avoid confusing great accomplishment with real living. “Your life matters,” he told the conferees.
But it was nearly impossible not to respond to this dead writer’s looming, powerfully welcoming call, and frankly, who in this crowd wanted to resist it, really?
Definitely not when, in a Saturday-morning session on Baldwin’s relationship to his adopted country, he declared the following in the 1971 documentary Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, while standing in front of the Bastille, the fortress/state prison that was stormed during the French Revolution: “I could be Bobby Seale. I could be Angela Davis. I could be Medgar Evers. … I’m a black man in the middle of this century. … I’m not at all what you think I am.”
While still standing, Baldwin mentioned that America has political prisoners, a statement that today would be relegated to the nation’s margins. When white men tear down a prison, Baldwin continued, schooling his ignorant European interviewer, it’s considered liberation, but when blacks do it, it’s considered an act of savagery. The idea? “That you, for me, is my prison. You are my warden.” So much for the stereotype of Baldwin, who resisted being called an expatriate, being seduced by France.
The zeitgeist, then and now, is ever present. Later in the film, surrounded by his mentor Beauford Delaney and a smattering of “Right on”-ing black American students, Baldwin talked about how he dealt with life’s division of labor. He said he knew that he couldn’t drive a truck, but “I can f—k with your mind!” Laughter on-screen and off, in 1971 and in 2016. In the film’s closing interview, he was asked whether he’s a revolutionary writer. “I’m a writer in a revolutionary situation,” he explained.
The Price of the Ticket documentary, screened at the conference’s close Saturday, served as a summary of the proceedings. Producer-director Karen Thorsen and co-producer Douglas Dempsey were on hand and included in their remarks a tribute to co-producer William Miles, a black documentary-filmmaking pioneer who became an ancestor in 2013.
So when the remastered film had finished screening (my 21st time?), the scholars and activists who had spent all weekend soberly analyzing one of their literary and social idols began to wipe their tears. Their metaphysical, extended visit—their collective communion—with Baldwin ended, their witness to his life and work born, for at least the frozen moment. They then rose from their seats and sprinkled themselves into the springtime Paris night. As I walked away from the university, turning the corner (in more ways than one), I struggled in vain not to think of Baldwin’s great smile and not to hear the obvious song start.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.