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Baldwin scholars, lovers, come together

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 4:46 p.m.
Baldwin scholars, lovers, come together

An estimate of James Baldwin's iconic reach, his literary weight, is incalculable. Hardly a year goes by that there isn't a new book, dissertation, seminar, tribute or conference centered on his "furious passage," as one biographer observed.

Feb. 17-20 at the Studio Museum, Schomburg Center and New York University, a coterie of Baldwin scholars and lovers will assemble under the rubric of "James Baldwin's global imagination." That imagination, which was boundless, will be considered by David Leeming, James Campbell, Rich Blint, Hortense Spillers, Cheryl Wall, Hilton Als, Darryl Pinckney and Randall Kenan, among others.

Perhaps because I have written a biography of Baldwin, I received an invitation to participate in one of the conference's panels. Reading Kenan's collection of Baldwin's "fugitive pieces," "The Cross of Redemption," I was struck by how often he used the words "terrible," "terror," and "terrifying." I am not sure how much to make of this, but they may say something very explicit about the daily fears and anxieties that Baldwin harbored and the demons he struggled with.

But if he were terrified--and being a tiny, black, homosexual author in racist America, he certainly had every reason to be troubled each time he ventured out from whatever refuge he found--it wasn't a terror that paralyzed him or in any way limited his "global imagination" or that intrepid spirit that took him into bars, neighborhoods, hamlets, villages, and towns where there was nowhere to run, and very few places in which to hide.

Much of the terror he spoke of belonged to his countrymen and women, whose very existences hinged on the whim and caprice of segregationists, those rabid white supremacists who themselves were terrified by the mere presence of Black humanity.

At the upcoming conference I will grapple with this issue, particularly as it pertains to the conference's theme. It is my hope that other Baldwin experts will find some merit in the subject and help me think through something I only touched on in passing in "Baldwin's Harlem."

For more information on the conference, contact the Schomburg Center at (212) 491-2200, e-mail baldwinconference@gmail.com or visit www.nypl.org/locations/schomburg.