Paper title: "As though I were one of their possessions, as, indeed, I am": James Baldwin as Literary Ancestor.”
Panel Title: “’These are all my children’”: Baldwin and Kinship Beyond Blood”
Participants: Michele Elam (Chair), Magdalena Zaborowska, Nigel Hatton, Quentin Miller, Rich Blint, Harry J. Elam Jr. (Moderator)
In the semi-autobiographical short story, “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” James Baldwin, in the guise of the actor/narrator, literally and literarily gives himself to a younger generation of African-Americans artists and students. Divided equally among gender (Ada, Ruth, Talliafero, Pete), the students are visiting Paris for the first time and encounter the narrator/actor in a café. “When they realize we have noticed them, “ says the narrator, “they smile and wave—wave as though I were one of their possessions, as, indeed, I am.” In the same café readers are alerted to the presence of American boys modeling themselves after Hemingway, American girls “titillating themselves with Frenchman and existentialism,” and young American and European artists following in the tradition of the latest art fads. The scene anticipates the atmosphere of a film like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” as well as its exclusion of black presence. In Baldwin’s short story, conversely, the group of African-American students is also provided with a literary ancestor, “a possession” the narrator/actor himself, or, Baldwin, who shepherds them through the night. That possession or gift of the self continues to have a hold on African-American presence in contemporary thought, presently in the form of writers like Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sharifa Rhodes- Pitts and Shay Youngblood. My paper reads them as among the latest students Baldwin has “noticed” and made himself available to, “as though I were one of their possessions.” Teju Cole’s New Yorker essay, “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s ‘Stranger in the Village,’” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Americana, Shay Youngblood’s novel Black Girl in Paris, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts extended essay, “Harlem is Nowhere,” all respond to Baldwin as if he were a “possession.”
James Baldwin describes once how, as a teen, he was greeted by a renowned black female pastor with her question, “Whose little boy are you?” As Baldwin—then just a schoolboy—puts it: “Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I ‘hang out’ with them”(The Fire Next Time, 1963). The question links for him the “spiritual seduction” that occurred prior to “any carnal knowledge,” and links then also, those street hustlers with the “church racket.” But, touchingly, his reminiscence does not so much highlight the similar métier of pastors and pimps—with their nearly indistinguishable efforts to convert innocents—as it does this boy’s profound need to belong. “I unquestionably wanted to be somebody’s little boy,” he writes, so “when the pastor asked me, with that marvelous smile, ‘Whose little boy are you?’ my heart replied at once, ‘Why yours.’” This boy (poignantly here, the author as child) is but one of many children that Baldwin describes in his writing who can only be saved (spiritually, politically, physically) by a communal sense of responsibility to one another. They stand as reminders that society is beholding—that is, to hold dear—its every member. For Baldwin, children represent the long continuum of that membership, from cradle to grave, a membership that Baldwin argued, in his 1979 speech at the University of California at Berkeley must be an assumed given not a right to seek. As Baldwin conjures them, children figure as reminders of a thicker-than-blood consanguinity, a kinship that, at times in his work, is aspirational—not yet extant in the world—and other times, a priori—an unrecognized human connection simply waiting to be reclaimed. Scenes of boyhood are never only about a private or domestic drama; they index the responsibility of self to/as other that is, he argues, necessary for equity and social justice.