Image credit: Cover of James Baldwin Review Volume 8. Featured on the cover is quilting by Kenya Baleech Alkebu.
Edited by Douglas Field, Justin A. Joyce, and Dwight A. McBride, James Baldwin Review, Volume 8 (Fall, 2022) is out now from University of Manchester Press.
After the introductory editorial by Managing Editor Justin A. Joyce (“Brothers or Fools”), James Baldwin Review’s eighth volume opens with a “Feature Essay” by Ed Pavlić, “Non-Violence, Black Power, and ‘the Citizens of Pompeii’: James Baldwin’s 1968.” This essay delves into James Baldwin’s work and experience in the pivotal year, 1968. Based in California that year, Baldwin was often in transit to New York and London, working in complex high-profile and underground ways. Pavlić provides here a fuller account of how Baldwin developed and deployed his gifts with generosity and intergenerational virtuosity during one of the most explosive years of the twentieth century. We continue with a comparison of work from the early and late stages of Baldwin’s career. Our second critical essay proceeds with an analysis of a relatively early work in Baldwin’s corpus, “‘A Kind of Joy’: Laughing and Grinning through ‘Sonny’s Blues,’” by James Nikopoulos. This article examines that story’s narrator’s focus on facial expressions to argue that this relationship between smiles, laughter, and a kind of joy resembles the relationship Baldwin has described between the blues and the world. Özge Özbek Akıman’s essay, “‘Forging a New Language’: A New Spatiotemporal Logic in James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” focuses on one of the last pieces Baldwin published, reading Evidence as key to Baldwin’s substantial attempts at “forging a new language.” Akiman reads beyond Evidence as well, suggesting that an economy of time emerges earlier in No Name in the Street (1972), as a result of Baldwin’s self-inflicted exile in Europe.
While Nikopolous and Aikman are paired here as comparative looks at different parts of Baldwin’s career, Joseph Weiss juxtaposes Baldwin with another writer. “Tortuous Time: Undoing the Past in Jean Améry and James Baldwin” compares the works of James Baldwin and Jean Améry, a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. Weiss attempts to unpack the ethical and political implications of their shared conception of the temporality of trauma to suggest, for both thinkers, the necessity of a new, revolutionary humanism equipped with an internationalist political project. Using political and critical theory, Monika Gehlawat’s “Baldwin and the Role of Citizen Artist” identifies in James Baldwin a model for citizenship unique to the Black artist who assumed the dual responsibilities of art practice and political activism. This essay pays particular attention to the tension between living a public, political life and the need for privacy to create art, and ultimately the toll that takes on the citizen artist, to posit that Baldwin demonstrates how the community of mutual support he finds among Black artists aids in their mutual survival. Rounding out the critical essays, and gesturing towards the reader’s role in Baldwin’s oeuvre, our next essay is the Graduate Student Essay Award winning contribution from Beth Tillman, “Reaching Toward the Reader: James Baldwin’s Voice in ‘Notes of a Native Son.’” This article is a close rhetorical analysis of Baldwin’s voice, whereby Tillman argues that Baldwin provides the reader with a transformative, intimate experience by rendering his own emotion and evolution accessible through his use of diction, repetition, alliteration, and punctuation.
This year’s “Dispatches” section is an especially robust mix of survey, review, and memoir, featuring four pieces that explore Baldwin through music, dramatic performance, and a virtual symposium held last year. “‘This Music Begins on the Auction Block’: Learning in the Twenty-First Century from James Baldwin on Music,” by Josh Friedberg, provides a thematic survey of Baldwin’s writing on music and its implications for the twenty-first century. In “Making Experiences Our Own: A Review of The Amen Corner, 2021,” Ijeoma Njaka reviews the 2021 production of James Baldwin’s play, The Amen Corner, as directed by Whitney White at Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Herb Boyd reviews the James Arthur Baldwin symposium at Virginia State University held in November of 2021 in “Baldwin Boxed in at Virginia State Symposium: A Review.” The final dispatch is a mixture of memoir, reflection, and scholarship by Michael A. L. Broyles, who details how, during a time of suffering, James Baldwin and singer Celia Cruz helped him understand his tense relationship with his toxic paternal grandparents and celebrate the reclamation of his stifled Mexican heritage in “Celia, James, and Me.”
In keeping with the aim of a comparative volume, our bibliographic essay this year looks to European translations of Baldwin’s canon. “The Evidence of Things Translated: Translating and Circulating Baldwin in Contemporary Europe,” by Remo Verdickt, provides a preliminary overview of how and to what extent Baldwin’s works have been made available via translation to new audiences across Europe. As Verdickt himself points out, though, this is but a start at assessing the full impact of Baldwin worldwide: “A truly global study of Baldwin’s circulation-through-translation, might paint a very different, and certainly larger, picture. That will, however, have to be a collective undertaking – for which this foray can count as an invitation.” Indeed, though this collective undertaking has been limited by relative inaccessibility for those that do not read in English or European languages, the impact of Baldwin across the globe is like a mighty wave that has yet to crest. As but one example, in the last year James Baldwin Review’s open access website has had readers from over 115 countries, a 30% increase from the previous year. As we continue to bring together a mixture of scholarship, reviews, and reflections—from a variety of voices—it is our humble aim to continue to grow our readership and expand the legacy and impact of our namesake author’s moving works and searing insights.
The 2022 volume of James Baldwin Review culminates with an interview; ending, in a way, where we began, in 1968, with a vital archival find introduced and discussed by Ed Pavlić, “They Came to See if I’m for Real: James Baldwin Interviewed by Hakim Jamal for LA Free Press (1968),” Upon returning to the United States to work on his screenplay about Malcolm X, James Baldwin was interviewed for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1968. Pavlić provides a contextual and historical introduction to that interview, which offers a rare glimpse of Baldwin’s style of engagement—despite their often merciless castigation of him—with a new generation of radical Black activists. This valuable interview is reproduced here with permission from the Free Press.
The cover art for this year’s volume—the center panel of a much larger quilt entitled “Red, White, and Baldwin” (2015)—is also of unique value, coming to us from Kenya Baleech Alkebu, currently incarcerated at the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary. This prison, nicknamed “Angola” after the name of the plantation that formerly occupied the land, is the largest maximum-security prison in the United States. Within the walls, gates, and 18,000 sprawling acres of this working prison farm, Kenya has been imprisoned for over 42 years. Along with Maureen Kelleher, an artist, activist, JBR contributor, and death row private investigator, Kenya is the founder of an artistic collective, the Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project. This unique project was originally conceived from a collaboration between a free person and an incarcerated person to highlight and bring attention to Angola’s prison hospice program and has since grown to include more lifers in Angola, as well as American political prisoners in federal facilities and a death row inmate in Tennessee. The quilting collaborative encompasses several incarcerated individuals working together with those outside prisons to “collaborate, communicate, support, and encourage creativity.” In addition to the quilt adorning our cover, several other quilts from the Project are part of an exhibition entitled “Stitching Time” at the Augusta Savage Gallery, U Mass, Amherst from Sept 12 until December 9, 2022. Kenya’s color choices in this quilt are meant to represent the “witness or witnesses to diversity in crisis.” The inspiration for the quilt, as he explains in his own words, involves Baldwin’s outspoken defense of essential humanity:
Well, the way I see it, James Baldwin is a champion of free speech. And his international prominence muffled the drumbeat of those who thought ex-slaves inferior, giving me, a neo-slave, reason and cause to live out loud, to come out from the shadows. It’s an honor to celebrate the legacy of James Baldwin.
In celebration of the Quilts Project’s artistic spirit, honed and perfected in spite of appalling deprivations within a prison named for a plantation within the ostensible “land of the free,” James Baldwin Review is honored, indeed, to feature Kenya Baleech Alkebu’s quilt, “Red, White, and Baldwin” as our cover art.
An excerpt from Ed Pavlić’s essay, “Non-Violence, Black Power, and ‘the citizens of Pompeii’: James Baldwin’s 1968” is available via Public Seminar here.
An excerpt from Ijeoma Njaka’s review, “Making Experiences Our Own: A Review of The Amen Corner (2021)” is available via Public Seminar here.
Justin A. Joyce is Research Director for President McBride at The New School. He is the founding and managing editor of the James Baldwin Review.