THE MARTHA HEASLEY COX CENTER
FOR STEINBECK STUDIES
SAN JOSÉ STATE UNIVERSITY
COLLEGE OF HUMANITIES AND THE ARTS
SAN JOSÉ STATE UNIVERSITY
COLLEGE OF HUMANITIES AND THE ARTS
The Center for Fiction and Audible, Inc. are pleased to announce that submissions are now being accepted for the fourth annual Christopher Doheny Award. The award recognizes excellence in fiction or creative nonfiction on the topic of serious physical illness. The award is presented annually for a completed manuscript that has not yet been published.
The winner of the award must demonstrate both high literary standards and a broad audience appeal while exploring the impact of illness on the patient, family and friends, and others. With generous support from Audible, Inc. and the Doheny family and friends, the award includes a $10,000 prize and production and promotion of the book in an audio edition, with the option to pursue print publication with the assistance of Audible, Inc.
Questions about the award and submission process can be sent to Writing Programs Director Sara Batkie at email@example.com.
The legacy of Jimi Hendrix’s estate has been in conflict in recent years. Since his father’s death in 2002, his siblings have squabbled over his money and battled unlicensed and bootleg venders. But Hendrix’s musical legacy continues to amaze and inspire, as Janie Hendrix—his stepsister and CEO of the company that manages his music—has released album after album of rarities over the last couple decades. Not all of these releases have pleased Hendrix fans, who have called some of them mercenary and thoughtless. But it is always a joy to discover an unheard recording, whether a live performance, wobbly studio outtake, or semi-polished demo, so many of which reveal the territory Hendrix intended to chart before he died.
In 1982, some of that unreleased material made it into a four-hour Pacifica Radiodocumentary, which you can hear in four parts here. Produced by what the station calls “some of Pacifica’s finest” at its Berkeley “flagship station 94.1 FM,” the documentary does an excellent job of placing these recordings in context. With help from Hendrix biographer David Henderson, the producers compiled “previously unheard and rare recordings” and interviews from Hendrix, his family, Noel Redding, Ornette Coleman, Stevie Wonder, John Lee Hooker, John McLaughlin, Chas Chandler, and more. After a newly-recorded introduction and a collage of Hendrix interview soundbites, Part 1 gets right down to it with a live version of “Are You Experienced?” that pulses from the speakers in hypnotic waves (listen to it on a solid pair of headphones if you can).
“I want to have stereo where the sound goes up,” says Hendrix in a soundbite, “and behind and underneath, you know? But all you can get now is across and across.” Somehow, even in ordinary stereo, Hendrix had a way of making sound surround his listeners, enveloping them in warm fuzzy waves of feedback and reverb. But he also had an equally captivating way with language, and not only in his song lyrics. Though the received portrait of Hendrix is of a shy, retiring person who expressed himself better with music, in many of these interviews he weaves together detailed memories and whimsical dreams and fantasies, composing imaginative narratives on the spot. Several extemporaneous lines could have easily flowered into new songs.
Hendrix briefly tells the story of his rise through the R&B and soul circuit as an almost effortless glide from the ranks of struggling sidemen, to playing behind Sam Cooke, Little Richard, and Ike and Tina Turner to starting his solo career. We move through the most famous stages of Hendrix’s life, with its iconic moments and cautionary tales, and by the time we get to Part 4, we start hearing a Hendrix most people never do, a preview of where his music might have gone into the seventies—with jazzy progressions and long, winding instrumental passages powered by the shuffling beats of Buddy Miles.
As has become abundantly clear in the almost four decades since Hendrix’s death, he had a tremendous amount of new music left in him, stretching in directions he never got to pursue. But the bit of it he left behind offers proof of just how influential he was not only on rock guitarists but also on blues and jazz fusion players of the following decade. His pioneering recording style (best heard on Electric Ladyland) also drove forward, and in some cases invented, many of the studio techniques in use today. Processes that can now be automated in minutes might took hours to orchestrate in the late sixties. Watching Hendrix mix in the studio “was like watching a ballet,” says producer Elliot Mazer.
This documentary keeps its focus squarely on Hendrix’s work, phenomenal talent, and uniquely innovative creative thought, and as such it provides the perfect setting for the rare and then-unreleased recordings you may not have heard before. Pacifica re-released the documentary last year as part of its annual fundraising campaign. The station is again soliciting funds to help maintain its impressive archives and digitize many more hours of tape like the Hendrix program, so stop by and make a donation if you can.
let me sense the chaos
(based on the mca jimi @ woodstock CD)
And those who took away our Voice
Are now surprised
They couldn’t take away our Song.
in the news
the blk world
fragmented / confused
confused / fragmented
marbling the sidewalks
of our psyches
in an indelible redness
no future sun can bleach
ten thousand dead
in one day”
i know that bosnia is bad
but have you seen liberia
have you heard haiti
been seized by rio’s preteen
street grown gangstas
or ingested the platinum
raps of inner city america
celebrating its own depravity
makes humpty dumpty look whole
the palsied palms
intermixed with the eye tears
of murdered cherokee
by the martial noise
from motley strains
of conquering caucasians
to their bellicose god
this mixture is the indigo matrix
of my muse’s midnight hue
have we survived the past
only to give up the present
the speedy spin
away from groundings
with our people
a chocolate despair consumes
leaving the dry bones
of neglected unity
disconnected & rotted
is the bottom line higher
than the common good
i have a new cd
of ancestral soundz
roaring strings timbred to a keening
juice of electric hurling through
akin to the incredible jism jerk
of groin muscles shooting off
i needed to make this hollering
this ghostly heart cry
always a need
the road to life
is no gentle path
birth is a renting of flesh
a messy letting
of dangerous blood
rife with pain & promise
merely momentary existence
amidst the vastness
within the cruelty of this
is the capacity of color
to forge beauty
from the chaos
the simple courage
& stand unshod
authoring the gospel
of musical creativity
whether with others
with hand instruments
or single voice alone
such singing is answer
we’ve found a sound
that turns the temporary
of today’s tough earth
into a life long
without dark sound sanctuary
my future is limited
to this tone deaf present
except within vibrant
how else can
my soul survive
let me sense the chaos
to my blues resound
let me sense the chaos
i will respond
with a song
sense the chaos
—kalamu ya salaam
Two hundred years ago this week, dozens of the nation’s most powerful men met in the Davis Hotel in Washington to plot the removal of African Americans from the United States. With the blessing of James Madison and James Monroe, the president and president-elect, they formed the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that was as well known in the nineteenth century as it is obscure today. For the next forty years, the ACS provided the most ‘respectable’ answer to a simple question: what would happen to black people if slavery was abolished? Since the 1770s, when British and French abolitionists had begun to influence American thinking on race, ‘benevolent’ whites in the United States had recognized a contradiction between slavery and “all men are created equal.” But they were nervous about living alongside recently-freed black people in a race-blind republic. Colonization allowed them to celebrate their antislavery sentiments while promoting a future in which racial equality required separation.
The roots of colonization thinking can be traced back to the 1770s, and follow two distinct strands. African Americans first debated the merits of a separate black nation as a means of escaping white prejudice. In 1773, four slaves in Massachusetts petitioned the colonial legislature for a gradual emancipation plan, promising to remove themselves to Africa once freed. Emigration schemes were debated within free black communities on the eastern seaboard throughout the 1780s and 1790s. In the 1810s, the Massachusetts sea captain Paul Cuffe visited Sierra Leone on two occasions, hoping to open a channel by which black Americans might relocate to West Africa. For Cuffe and other black leaders, the astonishing achievement of Haitian independence in 1804 provided a powerful example of self-determination. Although this African American strand of colonization enthusiasm never enjoyed majority support among black Americans, it continued to inspire figures as diverse as John Mercer Langston, Martin Delany, and Henry Highland Garnet through the 1850s.
The other strand of colonization thinking had a murkier provenance. From the first years of the republic, white philanthropists and reformers from the Upper South to New England built an antislavery movement around the idea that African Americans couldn’t be permanently exiled from the promises of the Declaration of Independence. However, even its leading lights struggled with the idea that free blacks could live alongside white people in equality. Thomas Jefferson famously addressed this anxiety in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785):
Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.
For Jefferson, this nihilistic view had a strongly racial component: he insisted that blacks were “probably” inferior to whites. Even many of his fellow slaveholders thought this conclusion too strong, arguing instead that blacks had been “degraded” by slavery – in effect, that they were temporarily inferior to whites, and required a concerted program of uplift and education before being freed.
For these white reformers, colonization provided easy relief from the moral and political challenges of integration. If a group of black pioneers could be persuaded to leave the United States, in the words of the Pennsylvania reformer John Parrish, they would create a new nation in which they could enjoy “liberty and the rights of citizenship.” Better still, their example would inspire other free blacks to make the same move, and “many persons of humanity, who continue to hold slaves, would be willing to liberate them on condition of their so removing.”
It was this vision of colonization—in which a vast scheme for racial separation was presented as socially liberal—that inspired the formation of the American Colonization Society in December 1816. While some historians have suggested that the ACS was merely a front for proslavery interests—with powerful southern slaveholders hoping to remove free blacks from the United States to consolidate the slave system—its origins and trajectory always evinced a watery commitment to abolition. Two facts made this commitment supremely insidious. First, it placed the burden of ending slavery on ‘benevolent’ slaveholders themselves, who would supposedly free their slaves when provided with an “outlet” for doing so. Second, it marked an epic endorsement of racial segregation, effectively denying the possibility of coexistence while promoting what would later be termed “separate but equal.”
It’s easy to lose track of colonization in our popular narratives of the struggle over slavery. We tend to imagine southern slaveholders and northern crusaders quickly assembling on opposite sides of the question, with the North/South divide mapping easily onto a progressive/regressive vision of race. In fact, most ‘moderate’ opponents of slavery in the northern states were sympathetic to colonization. Black removal structured the earliest attacks on slaveholding, and continued to fascinate reformers like Daniel Webster, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln.
Before the souring of sectional relations in the 1830s and 1840s, colonization also supplied a bridge between ‘mainstream’ antislavery sentiments in both North and South. The ACS opened auxiliary societies from New England through North Carolina; when upper southern legislatures engaged with the question of ending slavery, invariably they identified a black colony as the prerequisite for a general emancipation. Only the Deep South became a no-go-zone for colonization enthusiasts, with white politicians, editors and businessmen mobilizing their considerable power against even a feather-light antislavery challenge. In New England by contrast, colonization retained a considerable appeal through the first years of the Civil War.
The achievements of the Colonization Society were meager. Its colony of Liberia, founded in 1821, recruited only ten thousand migrants from the United States over the four decades before the Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln rebooted colonization in the 1850s as part of the Republican party’s assault on slavery, he looked to create his own giant schemes for racial separation in Central America or the Caribbean, tacitly acknowledging that the Liberian experiment was inadequate to the work of racial realignment.
But colonization matters profoundly to our understanding of race in the early republic, confirming an insight offered recently on this blog by Patrick Rael: while North and South came to disagree profoundly over slavery, their views of black potential—and especially black citizenship—were not so different. The popularity of colonization among northern and upper southern ‘moderates’ reminds us that segregation was not an invention of the South, but a lingua franca for white Americans who recognized the wrong of slavery but could not accept the logic of coexistence.
And what of the black strand of colonization enthusiasm, which predated white interest in black removal? One of the most remarkable aspects of the Colonization Society’s history is the consistency with which African Americans—even those who thought seriously about black nationalism—dismissed white efforts to coax them from the United States. From its first months of existence, the ACS looked to coopt black leaders to its plans for racial separation. James Forten, the Philadelphia businessman, was briefly taken in by the Society’s blandishments, but a grassroots meeting of African Americans in his hometown produced a sonorous unanimity against the Society’s plans and officials. “There was not one soul in favor of going to Africa,” Forten wrote to Paul Cuffe in 1817. While African Americans reserved the right to debate questions of emigration and black nationalism, they were overwhelmingly critical of an organization managed entirely by white people and supported by slaveholders.
Here is a demonstrative proof, of a plan got up by a gang of slave-holders to select the free people of colour from among the slaves, that our more miserable brethren may be the better secured in ignorance and wretchedness, to work their farms and dig their mines, and thus go on enriching the Christians with their blood and groans.
Walker’s words had a profound influence on white radicals like William Lloyd Garrison, who combed the volumes of the Colonization Society’s magazine for evidence of its proslavery tendencies. They may also have prevented historians from realizing the more unsettling truth about the ACS: its antislavery tendencies, however weak, were genuine. What defined the organization was its easy conclusion that segregation was the instrument by which slavery could be destroyed; what doomed it to failure was its belief that African Americans would consent to their own expatriation. If Walker’s account of the Society’s intentions was polemical, his challenge to its benevolent rhetoric has lost none of its power: “America is as much our country, as it is yours. Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we all will live in peace and happiness together.”
Nicholas Guyatt is a University Lecturer in American History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation and Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasGuyatt.
The tennis great and MC dive deep
for nearly an hour in ESPN’s
“The Undefeated In-Depth:
Serena With Common.”
Tennis star Serena Williams understands better than anybody how racism often underscores the negative criticism that repeatedly threatens to overshadow her athletic and cultural domination. She addressed the body-shaming idiocy in ESPN‘s December 18 conversation with rapper and actor (and former partner) Common.
“I guess [the critics] couldn’t relate to me because I’m Black, I’m strong, I’m tall, I’m powerful and I’m confident,” Williams said in “The Undefeated In-Depth: Serena with Common.” “But I can’t let that influence me or bring me down in any way. And yeah, there was a time I didn’t feel incredibly comfortable about my body because I felt like I was too strong. And then I had to take a second and think, ‘Well, who says I’m too strong?’ This body has enabled me to be the greatest player that I can be.”
The conversation was intercut with shots of Common talking about his new racial justice-oriented album, “Black America Again.” In one segment, he discussed celebrities’ responsibility to affect positive change. “It’s the Muhammad Ali philosophy, that it’s bigger than just us,” he said. “And the athlete and the artist, we have to take it upon ourselves to be the ones who can also aid in that, and connect the dots—meaning, whether it’s resources we can bring [people] to, opportunities we can bring them to, exposure—that’s our duty, to uplift the communities.”
Williams also addressed her enduring pride in her Blackness:
Like that poem that Maya Angelou said, that we are the hope and the dream of a slave. If you think about what the slave had to go through, and then the life that we are privileged to live—I wouldn’t want to be any other color. There’s no other race, to me, that has such a tough history for hundreds and hundreds of years. …Only the strong survive, so we were the strongest and the most mentally tough, and I’m really proud to wear this color every single day of my life.
Watch the full interview above, courtesy of ESPN’s race-focused publication “The Undefeated.”
(H/t Hip Hop DX)
& VIOLA DAVIS
On December 16, 2016, I delivered
the doctoral commencement address
at the University of Florida. This is
an amended version of my remarks.
Click here to watch the speech and
read the full transcript.
I have been traveling all over this nation speaking about my new book, Stamped from the Beginning. And when I say all over this nation, I mean all over the nation. I even spoke in Anchorage, Alaska two weeks ago. Anchorage is a beautiful city surrounded by mountains that seem to always be kissing the beautiful blue sky. From the city center, you can see the highest mountain peak in North America, a mountain the natives call Denali. You may know it is as Mount McKinley.
As we gazed up at the mountains one day, my host asked if I ever had a desire to climb a huge mountain. I replied, “I have already climbed one of the highest mountain peaks in the world: the doctoral process.”
So I would like to greet all those courageous climbers who trekked up the mountainthat is the doctoral process.
As you stand at this peak, I suspect you are not only celebrating, but you are also thinking about what is next. When I say thinking about what is next, I am not talking about you thinking about what is next in your career.
I want to talk to you about what is next for your mind now that you are a doctoral recipient. What is next for your mind now that you will have those three letters by your name.
The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?
I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?
Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.
When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.
I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.
All of you will be getting your doctorate degrees. But how many of you have a tremendous desire to know? How many of your minds are wide open to new ideas? How many of you are searching for ideas that challenge how you see the world? How many of you are willing to look at the world differently with the blink of new evidence? How many of you are critiquing your own ideas as intensely as you critique the ideas of others?
Intellectuals are a nomadic people, constantly changing their conceptual location, constantly in search of a better conceptual space. Intellectuals are constantly working out. We have work out warriors of the body, those who pump iron to break down old muscles to allow newer and bigger and better muscles to grow in their place. Well, intellectuals are work out warriors of mind, regularly breaking down old ideas to allow newer and bigger and better ideas to grow in their place.
Are you an intellectual?
Or will you become the tragedy that is the anti-intellectual with a doctorate degree? You know, those anti-intellectuals who stay close to what was taught to them by their family and friends and favorite teachers and favorite shows. You know, those anti-intellectuals who have planted themselves so deeply in a position that no hurricane of truth could uproot them. You know, those anti-intellectuals who develop convincing lies that ensure pseudoscience is well funded, convincing lies that ensure corrupt politicians are elected, convincing lies that ensure harmful products are sold, convincing lies that ensure that facts are discredited, convincing lies that ensure that bigots are exonerated for their crimes against humanity.
I chronicle these anti-intellectuals in my book, Stamped from the Beginning. The history of racist ideas in America is the history anti-intellectualism. For nearly 600 years, some of the best trained minds in Western Europe and the American colonies and the United States have been trying to prove that White people have been on the winning and prospering and living end of Western society not because of racial discrimination but because they are superior. For nearly 600 years, some of the best trained minds have been trying to prove that Black people have been on the losing and impoverishing and dying end of Western society not because of racial discrimination but because they are inferior.
You should know that there are only two ways to explain racial inequities and disparities. There were only two ways to explain why Black people were enslaved and White people were free. There are only two ways to explain why young Black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by the police than their white counterparts. Either there is something wrong with Black people—racist ideas—or there is something wrong with society, racial discrimination.
Throughout this nation’s history, Americans have dove into the false waters of racist ideas because we do not want to face the reality of racial discrimination. We have not bred intellectuals because only intellectuals are willing to always face reality. Only intellectuals pledge to look for and say the truth and nothing but the truth.
I show in Stamped from the Beginning that ignorance and hate did not lead to racist ideas as we have been commonly told, but the consumption of racist ideas led to ignorance and hate. We hate because we are ignorant about other groups. Our nation is racially divided because we attack groups of people instead of the policies that harms us all.
We have been led to believe that Latino immigrants are taking our jobs, even though the hard data shows otherwise. And so, ignorantly, we hate them. We have been led to believe that Muslims and Black criminals are the greatest threat to our security, even though the hard data shows otherwise. And so, ignorantly, we hate them.
Racist ideas have suspended reality, drenched us in lies, subjectified standards, misled millions by faulty statistics, and forcibly herded generations of unsuspecting Americans into legal ignorance and lethal hate. We now live in a society where comfort matters more than certainty, where tradition matters more than truth, where labels matter more than logic.
The task of intellectuals is to transcend political labels. The task of intellectuals is to transcend political ideology and economic interests and cultural traditions. The task of intellectuals is to fashion a clear and unadulterated mirror of humanity, so we can see ourselves for what we really are. The task of intellectuals is to investigate the problems of our world. The task of intellectuals is to solve the problems of our world.
Are you up for these tasks doctoral recipients? Are you up for the task of being an intellectual?
We are here at the mountaintop of the doctoral process. So I ask again what is next for your mind? Will you continue the never-ending climb that is being an intellectual? Or will you start making your way down the mountain towards the valley of anti-intellectualism, thinking you know it all, thinking you have the world figured out, thinking you are beyond critique.
It is certainly much easier to be an anti-intellectual, to go with the flow of the academic current, to reinforce what people already think. You can have a nice career as an anti-intellectual, and the energizers of the academic current will certainly reward you.
But know that the academic current will engulf you. Your work will not be remembered. You will not make history.
I want you to make history, not be history. I want your work to be remembered, not be forgotten. I want you to power and steer the academic current, not be engulfed by it.
I want to be celebrating you one day. I want your family and friends to be bragging about more than their child has a doctorate degree. I want your family and friends to be bragging about how your groundbreaking work is changing the world.
But in order to break new grounds, we must break from our old grounds. In order to change the world we must critique the world.
But before we can change or critique something else, we must have the capacity to change and critique ourselves. We must have the capacity to be intellectuals, to be on the perpetual climb towards the always rising peak of truth.
Congratulations on receiving your doctorate degree. But in all honesty, that is not enough for me. I don’t want you to leave with just a doctorate degree. I want you to leave as an intellectual.
Ibram X. Kendi is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), was awarded the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.
“Art,” Jeanette Winterson told an interviewer, “can make a difference because it pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.”
On April 9, 1980, exactly a decade after his legendary conversation with Margaret Mead, James Baldwin(August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat down with Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) for a dialogue about beauty, morality, and the political duties of art and the artist — a dialogue that continues to pull us up short with its sobering wisdom. Later included in the 1989 anthology Conversations with James Baldwin (public library), this meeting of titanic minds touches on a great many of our own cultural challenges and friction points, and radiates timeless, timely insight into how we might begin to stop accepting a deeply flawed status quo at face value.
Achebe begins by defining an aesthetic as “those qualities of excellence which culture discerns from its works of art” and argues that our standards for this excellence are mutable — constantly changing, in a dynamic interaction with our social, cultural, and political needs:
Aesthetic cannot be fixed, immutable. It has to change as the occasion demands because in our understanding, art is made by man* for man, and, therefore, according to the needs of man, his qualities of excellence. What he looks for in art will also change… We are not simply receivers of aesthetics … we are makers of aesthetics.
Art, Achebe argues, arises out of its social context and must always be in dialogue with that social element:
Art has a social purpose [and] art belongs to the people. It’s not something that is hanging out there that has no connection with the needs of man. And art is unashamedly, unembarrassingly, if there is such a word, social. It is political; it is economic. The total life of man is reflected in his art.
In a sentiment evocative of what Adrienne Rich has called “the long, erotic, unended wrestling” of art and politics, Achebe considers those who chastise artists for making their art political. All art is inherently political, he notes, but what such critics consider the artist’s objectionable “politics” is simply opposition to theirpolitics and their comfortable alignment with the status quo:
Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is.
And what they are saying is not don’t introduce politics. What they are saying is don’t upset the system. They are just as political as any of us. It’s only that they are on the other side.
Most art, Achebe argues, arises out of the status quo because — and perhaps this is a version of civilizational confirmation bias, with undertones of the backfire effect — we like to be affirmed in our values:
If you look at our aesthetics you will find … that art is in the service of man. Art was not created to dominate and destroy man. Art is made by man for his own comfort.
He turns to African art — particularly the tradition of his own heritage, the Ibo people — to illustrate the central concern of all art:
Our art is based on morality. Perhaps this sounds old-fashioned to you, but it is not to us. The earth goddess among the Ibo people is the goddess of morality. An abomination is called an abomination against the arts. So you see in our aesthetic you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.
Using, as he tended to, the word “poet” in the larger sense of any artist, any person of poetic orientation, Baldwin responds by affirming this core moral function of art and enlarges its human dimension:
When Chinua talks about aesthetic, beneath that world sleeps — think of it — the word morality. And beneath that word we are confronted with the way we treat each other. That is the key to any morality.
Invariably, this question of how we treat each other turns to race relations. But then, as if to illustrate the urgency of Baldwin’s point, the conversation is interrupted by a voice that had somehow hijacked the auditorium speaker system. The hostile male voice comes pouring out of Baldwin’s own microphone: “You gonna have to cut it out Mr. Baldwin. We can’t stand for this kind of going on.” At this point, a riled but composed Baldwin speaks authoritatively into the microphone before a shocked audience:
Mr. Baldwin is nevertheless going to finish his statement. And I will tell you now, whoever you are, that if you assassinate me in the next two minutes, I’m telling you this: it no longer matters what you think. The doctrine of white supremacy on which the Western world is based has had its hour — has had its day! It’s over!
As the audience enthusiastically applauds Baldwin, the moderator — a Sri Lankan-American professor of Ethnic Studies named Ernest Champion — rises and makes the perfect remark to restore order:
It is quite obvious that we are in the eye of the hurricane. But having this dialogue is quite important so all of us in this room will take it seriously.
With this, the anonymous antagonist vanishes just as he had appeared and the conversation continues, returning to the central duty of art. Achebe observes:
An artist is committed to art which is committed to people.
Baldwin nods in agreement:
The poet is produced by the people because the people need him.
Echoing his earlier thoughts on how the artist’s struggle for integrity illuminates the human struggle, he adds:
I know the price an artist pays… I know the price a man pays. And I am here to try to say something which perhaps only a poet can attempt to say… We are trying to make you see something. And maybe this moment we can only try to make you see it. But there ain’t no money in it.
In answering an audience question, Achebe builds on what that “something” is:
There is something we [black artists] are committed to of fundamental importance, something everybody should be committed to. We are committed to the process of changing our position in the world… We have followed your way and it seems there is a little problem at this point. And so we are offering a new aesthetic. There is nothing wrong with that… Picasso did that. In 1904 he saw that Western art had run out of breath so he went to the Congo — the despised Congo — and brought out a new art… He borrowed something which saved his art. And we are telling you what we think will save your art. We think we are right, but even if we are wrong it doesn’t matter. It couldn’t be worse than it is now.
Considering the implications of the latter statement, Baldwin makes an observation of chilling resonance today:
We are in trouble. But there are two ways to be in trouble. One of them is to know you’re in trouble. If you know you’re in trouble you may be able to figure out the road.
This country is in trouble. Everybody is in trouble — not only the people who apparently know they are in trouble, not only the people who know they are not white. The white people in this country … think they are white: because “white is a state of mind.” I’m quoting my friend Malcolm X … white is a moral choice… I can write if you can live. And you can live if I can write.
Responding to another audience question about the notion that “there can be no great art without great prejudice,” using Joseph Conrad as an example, Achebe echoes his central conviction about the role of the artist and readjusts the moral compass of art:
Great art flourishes on problems or anguish or prejudice. But the role of the writer must be very clear. The writer must not be on the side of oppression. In other words there must be no confusion. I write about prejudice; I write about wickedness; I write about murder; I write about rape: but I must not be caught on the side of murder or rape. It is as simple as that.
Quoting the Ibo proverb that “where something stands, something else will stand beside it,” Achebe argues that great art is built on pluralism and comes from the artist’s ability to embrace — to borrow Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase — her or his multitudes:
Single-mindedness … leads to totalitarianism of all kinds, to fanaticism of all kinds. And I can’t help the feeling that somehow at the base, art and fanaticism are not loggerheads.
Wherever something is, something else also is. And I think it is important that whatever the regimes are saying — that the artist keeps himself ready to enter the other plea. Perhaps it’s not tidy — perhaps we are contradicting ourselves. But one of your poets has said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well.”
Conversations with James Baldwin abounds with abiding wisdom on art and life from one of the fiercest minds of the past century and a number of his venerated peers. Complement it with Baldwin on the creative process, freedom and how we imprison ourselves, his advice to aspiring writers, and his forgotten conversation with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered, then revisit Achebe on the writer’s responsibility to the world.