The life and work of poet, playwright, director, filmmaker, educator and novelist James Baldwin will be examined at a two-day series of talks and events at Lehigh University on Wednesday, Nov. 17 and Thursday, Nov. 18.
The event, titled “James Baldwin, A Gathering,” is being presented by the Lehigh University Humanities Center, and will focus on the legacy of the legendary, pioneering figure in 20th century literature and culture. All events are free and open to the public.
Events will kick off with the showing of the film James Baldwin: From Another Place,
at 4:10 p.m. Wednesday at the Humanities Center, followed by a talk by filmmaker Sedat Pakay.
Then on Thursday, Baldwin biographer David Leeming will discuss the living legacy of James Baldwin in a talk titled, “Prophetic Voice, Prophetic Witness” at 4:10 p.m. in Linderman 200.
And at 8 p.m. Thursday, actor and Tony Award nominee Calvin Levels will deliver a one-man performance in homage to Baldwin titled “James Baldwin, Down from the Mountaintop,” in Packer Chapel.
“We are honored to have such an impressive line-up of speakers come to Lehigh in recognition and celebration of Baldwin’s work,” says Gordon C. Bearn, professor of philosophy and director of the Humanities Center. “Collectively, his work stands as a compelling challenge to social injustice and the inspiration to draw from and towards the deep sensual and religious reality which prejudice conceals.”
Adds Don Jackson, coordinator of the Baldwin conference: “James Baldwin, for me, has been one of the stellar examples that spoke with uncompromising courage and gave witness to the problems of our humanity.”
The Baldwin symposium is the leading event in this year’s “Creativity Raw & Cooked” series, which includes a series of events celebrating the creative spirit.
Upcoming events include performances by magicians, talks on outsider art and on creative democracy, exhibits and musical performances.
From rags to writer
Born in 1924 in a Harlem hospital, Baldwin’s childhood was marred by poverty and abuse. Taunted by his peers for his diminutive status, he sought solace in the church and underwent a religious conversion at the age of 14. He preached in evangelical churches in and around Harlem while holding down odd jobs such as busboy and railroad construction worker.
It was during Baldwin’s young adulthood that he began to write, and discovered both a cathartic release from psychic pain and a way to spotlight social ills through compelling narratives and prose.
After struggling with both racism and a conflicted sexual identity, Baldwin left the U.S. to live in Paris in 1948, traveling halfway around the world with only $40 in his pocket. In that country, Baldwin developed into a professional writer and began a prolific career that resulted in 22 books over a span of 40 years. He composed formal essays, fiction, drama and poetry that often combined autobiographical elements with trenchant cultural analysis.
His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain
, appeared in 1953 to excellent reviews and immediately was recognized as establishing a profound and permanent new voice in American letters. "Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else," he once remarked.
Among the best-known of Baldwin’s works are Notes of a Native Son
(1955), Nobody Knows My Name
(1961), and The Fire Next Time
(1963), which challenged the logic and morality of institutionalized white racism and offered up a healing, redemptive path.
Critic Irving Howe said that Fire Next Time
achieved "heights of passionate exhortation unmatched in modern American writing,” and
Baldwin’s landmark work stands a defining rejection of American racism and resistance to progressive ideals such as fairness and justice.
Baldwin remained a prolific writer throughout his life, writing essays and cultural criticisms, as well as novels, adaptations, volumes of poetry and even a children’s book titled Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood.
His last work, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” was published in 1985 in response to a series of child murders in Atlanta. He died at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in France on December 1, 1987.
Although the Humanities Center is the primary sponsor of the two-day event, support is coming from a number of other groups that include the university’s Visiting Lectures Committee; American Studies; the departments of theatre, religion studies, and English; the Office of Multicultural Affairs; Africana Studies; the Spectrum Student Club; the Women’s Center; and the Moravian College Office on Institutional Diversity.
For more information about this series of events, please call 610-758-4649.