A celebration of a man, his words

Writer: The National James Baldwin Society marks the author's birthday with readings and remembrances.

August 03, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The professor begs off any questions about a favorite subject. One question only leads to a another and another, then a conversation. Who knows where it would end?

"Don't get me talking about [James] Baldwin," he says. "I'll be here till the morning comes."

The professor's day started in New Hampshire. He drove home to Baltimore. Had to. The locals from the National James Baldwin Society were having a soiree and garden party to honor the writer's 75th birthday.

Carla Hayden, director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, was there, reading from her autographed copy of "If Beale Street Could Talk." Actors and poets strolled from salon to lawn. So Dolan Hubbard, chairman of English and Language Arts at Morgan State University, drove all day Sunday and got here, late, but better that than having missed the whole affair.

"I can think of no finer writer to lift up and celebrate, because Baldwin crossed all boundaries," he says, citing race, sex, nationality, class. There is another reason. "Baldwin is the sturdy black bridge that many of the writers who came of age in the '60s had to cross over."

The one-time boy preacher cast a long shadow over his time. Baldwin died of cancer on Dec. 1, 1987, in St. Paul-de-Vence, France. He was 63. He was born in Harlem on Aug. 2, 1924, and went to Paris when that city was home to the vibrant, post-World War II expatriate community of black artists, writers and musicians.

His writing matured in Paris. He became a powerfully passionate and insightful essayist, an engaging novelist. He did not stay in France. The civil rights movement brought him home. The fighting, the marching, the dying, all that brought him home. And in "The Fire Next Time," published in 1963, he almost seemed to prophesy what lay a few years ahead.

"If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!"

Because of this legacy, about 40 people showed up on a hot August night in Guilford to pay homage with readings and remembrances, first and second impressions of a writer who gave voice to what they could not articulate. Baldwin Society members called the evening, "The Fire This Time."

"Welcome to Jimmy Baldwin's birthday party," says actress Carolyn Marcus. "You might not see him. But tonight you will hear his words and feel his passion."

Credit the event to Kevin Brown, 39, who moves smoothly through the evening in slacks and white shirt, a colorful Izod print tie and modish, horn-rimmed Ray-Ban Wayfarer glasses. This past April he went online looking for programs celebrating Baldwin's birthday. Finding none, he and other society members waited.

"We said, `Yeah, somebody is going to do something. Whatever is going on, we'll go,' " he says. "Then we didn't hear nothing."

Brown is not a Baldwin aficionado. He's connected to the man through passion and admiration, a couple of chance meetings.

"We're here because he changed people's lives," Brown tells the crowd sitting on lawn chairs. "His message was love. Yeah, he was angry, and sometimes he was bitter. But society made him bitter. The times made him bitter."

Readings by Hayden and Martha Saunders reveal Baldwin's sensual side, his deft handling of a woman's first sexual encounter, written from the woman's point of view. Marcus sports her niece's graduation gown and Kente cloth for a sermon from "The Amen Corner." She has her own story of meeting Baldwin.

It was in New York City in 1980; she and others were in town to perform in an off-Broadway production of Baldwin's play, "Blues for Mister Charlie." Minutes before the curtain went up, in walked Baldwin.

"I was just so super-excited that I just broke character," she says. "My director was furious with me."

The night became a treasured memory. Baldwin talked until dawn.

"The more he drank, the more perceptive he was," says Marcus. "He started just talking and looking at us with those big, penetrating eyes."

Archie Williams, another Baltimore actor, was there that glorious evening. He recalls an "Othello" duel between Baldwin and another actor, the two men firing lines of Shakespeare back and forth. That was Baldwin.

Marcus saw him a year later in Baltimore, where she was performing in a Center Stage production of "The Amen Corner." Brown put on a party for him and spent the night listening, trying not to be put off by the smoke streaming from Baldwin's never-ending supply of cigarettes. They met again in 1986, after Baldwin visited the Baltimore City Community College.

"He talked about Paris and what it meant being black and homosexual, poor," says Brown, who rushed home and returned with poems to show the master. "He pretty much told me that they stank and you should not write poetry."

Those were the type of memories tossed around, the writer as raconteur, holding a room in thrall to his brilliance, his charisma and, at least in these stories, his gentleness of spirit.

Walking out, the salon over, visitors caught sight of candles flickering in a hearth that had been turned into an altar to Baldwin. A rugged Remington Rand typewriter sat there, along with a photograph of Baldwin, his hair gray, his eyes looking out from his magnificent, expressive face.

Some paused to reconsider the man who touched countless lives, who brought thousands of words into the world. Saunders thinks young folk today would do well to read words like these Baldwin wrote to his nephew:

"... you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity."

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