On August 2, 2014, cities across the country will celebrate James Baldwin’s 90th birthday, honoring a giant of American literature. In Baltimore, the James Baldwin Literary Society will be putting on a weekend of events to celebrate the author’s legacy as well as provide a forum for African-American authors to share their work and paths.
Baldwin was one of the 20th century’s great literary voices, a writer of important novels such as Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Giovanni’s Room. He also wrote numerous plays and essays, dealing with America’s inability to adequately address or heal from its legacy of racism.
Paula Whaley, the baby sister Baldwin honored with the dedication in his first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, spoke to the AFRO before heading to New York City. This weekend she will be present for the renaming of a section of E. 128th Street in Harlem in honor of her brother. Whaley said Baldwin would be “flabbergasted” to see so much attention lavished on him. He was a man who preferred to be seen simply as a writer rather than the celebrity he became.
Whaley, who lives in Baltimore City and runs the Oneeki Design Studio in Charles Village, discussed the lessons she learned from her brother during an AFRO interview in April. “I learned a lot about the way you live in terms of risking things,” said Whaley. “For me, simply because of who we are or who we were, and because of the father that my siblings experienced, we dealt with great fear. A lot. So part of my journey has been – and he (Baldwin) taught me in terms of looking at the world, going within – dealing with your fear, in order to face it.”
Kevin Brown, one of the cofounders of the James Baldwin Literary Society (JBLS), established in Baltimore City in 1986, said it was Baldwin’s courage that shaped his greatest legacy. “Speaking truth to power,” said Brown of that legacy. “Being unbought and unbossed. Never allowing the status quo, the mainstream media, to reframe, repackage, shorten his speech, make him a sound bite. James Baldwin has never been a sound bite. John F. Kennedy is a sound bite: ‘It’s not what your country can do for you’; Lyndon B. Johnson is a sound bite; Bull Connor is a sound bite; Martin Luther King Jr. – I hate to say that – is a sound bite: ‘I have a dream.’ James Baldwin never became a sound bite. Never. There’s too much ‘there’ there.”
JBLS has three events planned for the weekend of Aug. 1, all of which will take place at Nancy’s, a cafe on North Avenue and N. Howard Street owned by Brown. On Friday, the cafe will host a cocktail party and reception, featuring readings from Baldwin’s corpus, including the essay “Nothing Personal,” and the nonfiction book The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which Brown says are in their 50th and 30th year respectively.
On Aug. 2, the date Baldwin would have turned 90, Nancy’s will host the 20th anniversary of the publishing of New Breezes Literary Magazine, a series of anthologies featuring emerging African-American writers that was first published in 1994. At the event, a number of authors who published their work in the anthologies will read selections and discuss the careers the anthologies helped launch.
Alma Roberts, the editor of New Breezes, spoke of the way Baldwin helped shape the way we view writing today. “Here was this giant of a literary figure, and he himself in his personal life broke numbers of barriers, that really sort of made people move past the traditional thinking about writers and especially African-American voices,” said Roberts. “His messages were powerful and they resonated not just with African-Americans but with the majority, general population as well.”
On Aug. 3, the cafe will host a brunch, featuring live jazz from John Milton Wesley. Anyone interested in attending one of the events should email JBLS at email@example.com.