University panel celebrates author James Baldwin’s 90th birthday

Baldwin on being a black, poor, and gay writer: “I thought I hit the jackpot–it was so outrageous, you could not go any further. So you had to find a way to use it.”

By Peyton Alie

On Friday evening, students and community members gathered at the Black Cinema House for a screening and panel discussion of the documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. The event was in honor of Baldwin’s 90th birthday.

Initially released in 1989 and recently digitally restored, the film is about Baldwin, an author and activist famous for his writing on race in America in novels and essay collections such as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and The Fire Next Time.  The film chronicles Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem, his time as an expat in France, Turkey, and Switzerland, and his complex relationship with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

The screening was collaboratively organized by Oracle, a free theater company in Chicago, South Side Projections, a nonprofit organization that offers film screenings accompanied by discussions throughout the South Side, and UChicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture (CSRPC).

Though the documentary pieces archived both film clips of Baldwin and interviews with his brother, his partner, and other writers, its core is a compilation of interviews with Baldwin himself, which illuminate his views on his own experiences, as well as American society.

When an interviewer asks Baldwin about the difficulties of starting his writing career “black, impoverished, and homosexual,” he responds laughing: “Oh no, I thought I hit the jackpot—it was so outrageous, you could not go any further. So you had to find a way to use it.”

In a 1968 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin discusses the role of institutional racism in America.

“I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to,” he says. “This is the evidence. And you want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen?”

Following the screening, panelists Karen Thorsen, the director of the documentary, E. Patrick Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University, and moderator Devin Mays, an MFA student at UChicago, reflected on the documentary and answered audience questions.

Thorsen began the discussion by detailing the process of making the documentary. Initially, she worked closely with Baldwin to plan the film, which was originally centered around his process of writing a book about his memory of the Civil Rights Movement. However, Baldwin died before the documentary was completed, and Thorsen restructured it to instead serve as an overview of his life and career, adding scenes of author Maya Angelou reading excerpts of Baldwin’s work out loud and combing through archival footage.

“We realized that he could tell his own story,” she said.

In response to a question by Mays, Thorsen and Johnson also addressed Baldwin’s complicated relationship with Christianity and its influence on his work. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher, and Baldwin himself began to preach at fourteen years old. He moved away from the church at seventeen and never returned, but continued to use Biblical language and imagery in his writing.

“[Baldwin] had to speak truth to power, but that was always grounded in faith,” Johnson said. “He critiqued religion, but relied on it at the same time. It was part of his strategy for freedom.”

The panelists also spoke about the resonance of Baldwin’s work today.

“It was eerie thinking about Black Lives Matter, what’s happening in Paris, the Syrian refugees,” Johnson said. “We need his words now more than ever.”