When I was coming up in the sixties there were two JBs that ruled: James Brown and James Baldwin. Both presided over their respective genres like gods.
Always a precocious and avid reader, I first encountered Baldwin’s unique voice and genius in 1965, at the age of thirteen, via his novels. But to my surprise his collections of essays, rather than his fiction, made the greatest impression on me. Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961) introduced to me the art of essay writing and radically changed my view of literature. Among the diverse works it contains I found none more compelling than “Princes and Powers,” the second essay in the collection, in which Baldwin discusses the 1956 Le Congres des Escrivains et Artistes Noir (The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists).
Reading those thirty pages impacted me in ways I didn’t and couldn’t understand at the time. The idea of black luminaries from across the African World meeting for a conference in Paris came as something of a shock to me, a black teen living on the threshold of poverty in Cincinnati, Ohio. Moreover, at that moment, my sense of deprivation had never been so acute. My father had recently and suddenly died in Washington, D.C., which left my mother to support me (her eldest child) and my three siblings with the meager wages she made cleaning the homes of two of my white junior high school classmates.
Baldwin’s narration of the conference’s daily events and speeches, and his depictions of the often bitter disagreements among presenters and attendees, provided me with a respite and refuge from my loss while opening my eyes wide to a new view of the world. The matter-of-fact language he used to describe the speakers and their rhetorical efforts to confront and contest the stark reality of colonialism and racism in the lives of black people equally captivated and mystified me. Perhaps in some odd way it provided a novelistic form of escape. Perhaps the exotic locale and the equally exotic characters from places like Martinique, Senegal, and Haiti added to the effect. Whatever the case, his uncompromising honesty about the plight and potentialities of black people during the height of the struggle against colonialism in Africa and the civil rights struggle in the U.S. (which Baldwin redefined as a “slave rebellion”) awakened in me a desire to be a force for resistance, a warrior among warriors. Those certainly were the dreams of my precocious youth in the aftermath of the death of my father, dreams I clung to as a life preserver.
With limited comprehension of what I encountered in those pages, and an unquenchable desire to learn as much as I could absorb, I returned to the essay (and others in the book) time and again to re-live vicariously the events through Baldwin’s discerning eyes. Through those eyes I met Cheikh Anta Diop (who failed to impress or persuade Baldwin with his speech about Ancient Egypt), C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and a host of others (click here for a list of speakers and their biographies) who became and have remained fundamental influences on my scholarly-activism, literary endeavors, and intellectual pursuits. Forty-six years later, I still have the Dell paperback version of Nobody Knows My Name I purchased in 1965 for the nominal sum of fifty cents. It remains one of the best investments I have ever made.
Below is a brief excerpt from a fiery speech James Baldwin gave at Berkeley circa 1979.