Last January I received an email from my friend, Laurel Ullyette, regarding a James Baldwin reading group that would take place at Cayuga Community College every Thursday evening for the month of February. Rosemarie Romano and Laurel had written a grant that covered use of the books for all the participants and a stipend for the group’s moderator, George Kilpatrick. Laurel wrote to me because there were a few spots left in the reading group and she wondered if I would be interested in joining. I was. And my calendar for those four Thursdays was wide open. It was a relatively mild winter, though it seemed every Thursday during the month of February there was a blizzard and freezing temperatures to boot. We worried about George driving to and from Syracuse. We worried about ourselves getting there and home again, too. But the subject of the discussions was so riveting – James Baldwin and his writing – that we persevered and managed to hold a discussion every single one of those Thursday evenings. And how grateful we all were (and are!) that we did.
I had read a bit of James Baldwin here and there over the years and had felt a draw to him since high school. But that four week course was my first opportunity to fully immerse myself in his writing. Another world opened up to me. And, as is true with all great writers, though he had written decades earlier, he and his work were still modern, still relevant, perhaps more relevant than ever because of how little things had changed since the time of his writing. James Baldwin had been way out ahead, so far ahead that most people at the time, I’m sure, could not grasp the simple truths he tried to offer. So far ahead that many people, I fear, are still not able to grasp what he has to offer us all. In a college religion course, I first learned about bodhisattvas, those beings who reach enlightenment/nirvana but who choose to turn back out of compassion to help others who are still suffering. I use this term to describe people like James Baldwin, because, for me, there simply is no other explanation.
Our reading group became close. After the four weeks were over, many of us continued to stay in touch. We still exchange emails, meet up, inform one another about topics we feel will be of interest to one another. During the election cycle, for example, I often turned to my Baldwin “sisters and brothers” (this is what George calls us) for guidance and input and perspective. So when I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO began to receive national attention, it was a Baldwin “sister” who suggested we screen the film at Auburn Public Cinema. The first of two scheduled screenings sold out quickly. Wow, I thought, the world is finally ready to hear from James Baldwin. How amazing. The second screening is on its way to selling out and it’s only Wednesday afternoon. I’m almost certain we will add a third screening. And we are only one of several theaters in the area screening the documentary.
We live in interesting times, for sure. The political landscape is tense, to say the least. So many people up and down the political spectrum feel disenfranchised and many more, it seems, are furiously angry. It’s so hard to know where the turmoil will lead or even to understand where we are as a country in the midst of it all. Simply said, many days it is hard to remain hopeful that things really will turn out for the best. And then there is James Baldwin and the film I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO.
In the trailer for the movie, Baldwin says he is an optimist because he is still alive. Indeed and, for now, so are we.
Thank you, James Baldwin, for living such an authentic life, for speaking and writing your truth and for leaving behind such an amazing legacy.