James Baldwin

jamesBaldwinIn the 1970’s, Delacorte Books put out best selling authors like James Clavell, Stephen King, Howard Fast, and Irwin Shaw, and literary authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Yates, Tim O Brien, and Jayne Ann Phillips. In 1979, many of these authors and I too at Delacorte Books had new books being published and our publisher threw a party to celebrate such a galaxy of talent, and so we might also meet the press.

Of all the authors present that I admired, I most wanted to meet James Baldwin, and to read his new novel Just Above My Head. But even for another author getting near Baldwin that evening wasn’t easy. He seemed circled, virtually protected from outsiders. 

Finally I pushed through, introduced myself (drawing the expected blank) and said to Baldwin, “In college, we all talked about Another Country. How it depicted relationships between blacks and whites, gays and straights was totally real: As were those moments of unbridgeable gaps.”

“Not unbridgeable,” Baldwin insisted concerned, and he drew me aside to sit, pleased that his book had reached this so important readership. We talked for ten minutes of SNCC, the bus rides down south, the integration movement and its leaders. We finally only parted when interviewers became persistent.

By 1987, I discovered that I had made a literary impression myself. Even so, I was surprised to be invited to speak at The Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was the midst of the Reagan Era; in a recently published essay I had decried a Media distracted by Reagan’s empty sound bytes and his wife’s fashions into ignoring unsolved national problems. I claimed that under Reagan all the social advances we’d made were being rolled back to the 1950’s. Important people had read my essay and so this also became the theme of my speech to be given and broadcast at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

I lodged in the Center’s hotel, next door to the President and First Lady of Brazil. Everything was first class and professional. There was a cocktail party beforehand and then I gave my talk to a good sized audience. During a dinner of the faculty and administration, a professor said to me, “Someone would like to see you. He wasn’t well enough to come.”

That was the first I’d heard that Baldwin was back in the U.S. -- and ill. Friends had pulled strings to bring him back, to get him a house, a stipend, and medical care for his stomach cancer.

We re-encountered that night in his dimmed parlor, alone, with others two rooms distant. He was surrounded by pillows, and wrapped in blankets. James Baldwin was never a handsome man, given his prominent eyes and strongly sculptured features. But at times he’d been extraordinary to see, master of his face, master of words, master of the telling gesture.

This night he looked utterly exhausted. We shook hands and he held onto my hand with his own skin-and-bones hand for the entire short duration that I visited.

He had heard my talk over the University’s radio station and he said that what I’d said was correct. But what more could be done, he wondered? So many people had done so much over the years, had given so much of themselves, he added. Including himself, I knew,

But I was adamant that we point out these wrongs no matter who was in office and that we make sure they are corrected.

Baldwin despaired. His last book was unpublished in English, he said: No one cared anymore. Well, maybe gays still had energy, focus, and anger Baldwin added. He really didn’t know any more. He told me that he was planning to return to France to die.

I was stunned and too distressed to tell anyone else that we’d even spoken. I never told anyone until I wrote this. We drove away from his house in silence back to the hotel.

But I recalled that conversation the night that Obama was elected President: I wanted so much to say: “See Jimmy! See!”

Maybe it’s up to us to struggle and prepare the ground no matter what happens to us? Maybe change comes when it is ready?

Felice Picano© 2010, 2014
First published in Out Magazine