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Free weekend event: Race, social justice and writer James Baldwin’s modern-day relevance

Why the celebrated author’s essays still carry a punch in 2017.

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Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Social justice collective Saturday Free School will host a free, three-day event series at North Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate this weekend honoring the life of famed novelist, playwright and essayist James Baldwin, whose work explored America’s struggle with race, sexuality and injustice.

Baldwin has increasingly been praised as a one of America’s greatest essayists. But his words seem to carry a certain prescience in an era where police violence on victims of color has taken a regular place in the national conversation, where the nation’s politics remain tense.

“It’s really a moment of crisis in some way,” said Archishman Raju, an organizer with Saturday Free School. “The legitimacy of political structures and social systems are being called into question by a lot of people.”

In 2013, then-Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey invited the Department of Justice to investigate local police-involved shootings. With increased scrutiny of the shootings, the rate of police-implemented deadly force fell dramatically. The DOJ’s 2015 report found that the rate of police-involved shootings in Philly was alarmingly high— there were 59 such incidents in 2012. But this statistic dropped to 23 in 2015. Protests in Philadelphia were a common occurrence before President Donald Trump’s November win, with groups like Black Lives Matter Philly and the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice pushing for police reform. But after Trump’s victory, these protests have grown more frequent.

Anthony Monteiro, founder of Saturday Free School, said Baldwin wouldn’t be surprised at all by outrage over police-involved shootings or the country’s social turmoil. (In 2014, Monteiro’s contract as a professor at Temple was not renewed. Amid allegations of racism and sour department politics, students unsuccessfully protested in favor of his reinstatement.) He also used the term crisis.

“I don’t think he would see it as unusual or abnormal or going away quickly,” said Monteiro, also an activist and African American studies scholar. “Violence, whether police violence or the normal violence of white people against black people, is endemic to the system and therefore black people must defend themselves in any way possible. And not just armed violence. It means organization, it means unity, it means clarity about what the crisis is.”

The event series will encompass readings, panel discussions, live performances, speeches and film screenings. Saturday Free School, which, as the name gives away, seeks to be an educational resource for activists, studied Baldwin for a few months some years ago, but they’ve resumed examining his writing since April. Baldwin has been a master teacher of sorts.

“His work really gets to the heart of American society,” said Raju. “Baldwin is particularly significant because in all his work he approaches everything from a place of love, and I think that’s required to make that sustained critique… and to do the type of organizing which we need to do to create change.”

In his probing essays on race and prejudice in America, and his novels and plays often steeped in the same themes, Baldwin’s analysis touched on many issues that speak to the modern day. Here’s an example. In his essay, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” published in the Nation 51 years ago, Baldwin introduced the 1964 Harlem race riot in this manner:

“And all of this happened, all of this and a great deal more, just before the “long, hot summer” of 1964 which, to the astonishment of nearly all New Yorkers and nearly all Americans, to the extremely verbal anguish of The New York Times, and to the bewilderment of the rest of the world, eventually erupted into a race riot. It was the killing of a 15-year-old Negro boy by a white policeman which overflowed the unimaginably bitter cup.”

Fusion referenced the essay when naming a documentary on police treatment and social unrest after Michael Brown’s death— Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory. But it’s not just police violence.  The Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), which will be screened on Saturday afternoon at the church, seams Baldwin’s commentary with current events. In a 1980 interview, Baldwin was asked about the American ghetto. He replied that white flight had hurt urban tax bases, that black property ownership was low, and that soon white residents would return to these blighted neighborhoods, pushing the black folks out. CityLab has already revisited this as a forecast for gentrification. Earlier this year, Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham wrote, “To read or hear Baldwin today is to understand America with all its promise and despair in a way that many of its citizens would still rather ignore than abide. Now nearly 30 years gone, Baldwin is still the North Star that guides those willing to listen and learn.”

Raju said that Baldwin’s lessons aren’t just national and aren’t just relevant with Trump in the White House. The writer looked at white supremacy as a global problem; whiteness as a political construct, not a marker of someone’s true self.

“I’m not American; I’m Indian, but I’ve come from a country where I can see similar things operating,” Raju said. “The West is always looked up to as the model of civilization. And that’s why Baldwin’s work really speaks with me, because he really examines that idea.”

Monteiro agreed. He said he can’t put his finger on exactly how many years he’s been reading Baldwin, but he puts it past the 50-year mark. When thinking of Trump’s success, he points to a passage from the Fire Next Time, which Baldwin published in 1962:

“It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be re-examined. What one would not like to see again is the consolidation of peoples on the basis of their color. But as long as we in the West place on color the value that we do, we make it impossible for the great unwashed to consolidate themselves according to any other principle. Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality. But this is a distinction so extremely hard to make that the West has not been able to make it yet.”

Results from the most recent American National Election Study revealed that white voters were more swayed in the voting booth by racial views than authoritarianism. “I guess it’s like this country needs Baldwin now more than ever because of the crisis that nation is in and the nature of it, which really falls within the framework of Baldwin’s thinking,” said Monteiro. “Whiteness is predicated material benefits based on someone’s identity as being white… But what happens when the system isn’t able to produce those benefits?”

James Baldwin: God’s Revolutionary Voice, Friday, July 7 through Sunday, July 9, Church of the Advocate, 1801 Diamond St.