Book Mini-Review: The Artist Is Human, And Black Too

An American Odyssey: The Life and Work and Romare Bearden.
Mary Schmidt Campbell.
Oxford University Press, 464 pp. $34.95.

As the third decade of the 21st century swiftly approaches, it might be difficult for some fine artists under 35 to understand a time when the self(ie) was not unapologetically at the center of the artistic experience. The first biography of Bearden in almost 20 years, and clearly the fullest, Campbell–who knew the author, trading letters with him going back to the 1970s–has crafted a quality book about 20th- and 21st-century Black ritually- and visually-based aesthetics through American history’s prism. (The fact that, as Campbell writes, “Bearden seemed to delight in exploring the use of color” has a acute, and subtle, significance.) With a lack of dangerous 20th century socio-political action and adventure to reconstruct, Campbell, president of Spelman College and a former leader in the New York City artistic community, must go around and through the topic, briefly profiling the many artists in his orbit, such as Aaron Douglas, Charles Alston and Augusta Savage. She documents well, and with great care, his artists’ organizing efforts, his many important writings and his forgotten early-political cartoonist career. What was most important to this reviewer is her detailed, and thoughtful, placement of Bearden at the slow-but-perfect storm of the development of 20th century American media, technology, popular culture and racial struggle. Although Campbell’s theme of the Black American Odysseus is sound, this book is actually about how someone fed on the European art classics and the organic African-American experience (of Harlem and Pittsburgh) slowly realizes something when the latter becomes in vogue in the 1960s (perhaps not-so-coincidentally), allowing him to ultimately collage his being fully as both an artist and a Black man: that being and presenting one’s Black self in New York City, the then-new center of the art world in the center of the century, forever seeing and remembering, is more than profound enough.

 

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Asante Sana, The Village Voice

Even putting on my media historian’s hat, it is difficult for me to explain how important The Voice was to American journalism.

Once upon a time (at least from the 1970s through the 1990s), it was the place for uncompromising political and cultural journalism. It was required reading for people who wanted to absorb (as a reader) or master (as a writer) the now-dying art of longform mass-media journalism.

The Voice was important to me because I read there important Black writers such as Thulani Davis, Lisa Jones, Greg Tate, Peter Noel and Joe Wood. (I never forgot Wood’s 5,000+ profile of Albert Murray in the paper’s famous annual Arts Supplement pullout.) The Voice essay that still shakes me to this day is Joan Morgan‘s “A Blackwoman’s Guide To The [Mike] Tyson Trial,” an article that introduced me to sexual harassment, misogyny and rape culture.

It was for people who wanted hardcore journalism. It showed me you didn’t have to be at The New York Times or The New Yorker to kick journalistic ass in New York! It made me want to be a real writer who wrote longform narrative journalism in nuance and detail. After I finish the book I’m writing, I’m going to do just that.

 

My Response To Wei Tchou’s Nation Magazine-Sanctioned, Not-So-Subtle, Attack On Three Black Opinion Journalists at MTV

the-nation

My friend Angel V. Shannon showed me this and this. She gets my public thanks.

My cent-and-a-half:

1) The first thing to remember is that journalism is a TRADE. Anyone has done it, anyone can do it, and now everyone is now doing it. So there are no real “credentials” to being a journalist. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a Howard University drop-out. So, I may add, was Amiri Baraka, one of the greatest writers on Black culture that Black America produced in the 20th century. In his introduction to “The Price of The Ticket: Collected Essays,” James Baldwin talked about how he didn’t even bother going to The New York Amsterdam News because those Negro college boys would have laughed him out the office. Tchou, interestingly, ignores the two-generations-old pipeline that connected Ivy League grads to jobs like hers. (By the way, Farai Chideya is one of those people; Harvard to Newsweek by 25 by 1994.) I guess in Ivy League Land, The Harvard Crimson is “experience,” huh?

Journalism schools were created because the industry was too lazy to train anyone, but needed bodies. I have three journalism degrees, and what I’ve learned from them professionally (from the first two) I could teach in 40 hours or less. As an American journalism historian, I can tell you with some authority (ulp, there’s that word :)) that almost half of the greatest (white, male) journalists of three-quarters of the 20th century had NO degree, never less a “pedigree” (although, some, like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, did).

Journalism became a profession in the 20th century because of the MASSIVE need to fill space between advertising. Mass advertising had taken off because of the transfer of people from individual farms to collective cities. The mass audience/market had been born, and content was needed to draw eyeballs (later ears, then, with Tee Vee, the whole thing) to ADS. It was the same reason that

2) “Objectivity” was created. It was created after the Civil War. It was created after 100 years of American viewspapers. Why? For advertising purposes! Creating an “objective,” mainstream media allowed most people to be comfortable with buying the paper to read the advertisements. So both the newspapers owners and advertisers made a pile of money, ,and a WHOLE bunch of people got GREAT careers, travelling the nation and world for decades, with just a bachelor’s degree, decent typing skills and curisoity. They became “prestigious.” This is the real reason why “objectivity” was so cherished.

But what’s really happening here now, right?

3) The walls between mainstream journalism and opinion/literary/cultural/”alternative”/race journalism have been permanently destroyed by the Web 2.0.  The segregated world of the Black press, white press, LGBTQIA press, etc. is, now that we are well into the 21st century, getting both merged and, paradoxically, re-segregated. Dude at MTV wants his version of the old Village Voice, right? Well, the VV had both investigative reporting and identity politics writing. The Nation is crapping on the idea because it is representing all of the white male writers who now can’t get jobs–not because their jobs have been eaten by 2.0., but by these “unqualified” Black people. There ain’t enough room anymore for all of dem anymore (and their core audience is dying off): ergo, the old “unqualified” sting. It was different in the mass media era because there were enough jobs for everyone; not everyone wanted to be Norman Mailer or I.F. Stone when they could be the next Edward R. Murrow or David Halberstam. Whites had real choices, based on their priorities and proclivities. But now things that used to be done just in the “alternative” media have now become fulltime, prestigious jobs. Now, these elite white boys have to go teach English and #$%&–you know, the stuff we, as Black people, had to do all our lives, and still do (Rachel Kaadazi Ghansah, one of the greatest writers on Black American culture in the United States,  is a public schoolteacher; she’s not on welfare, begging The New York Times Magazine, where she contributes, to hire her.

I never forget that Albert Murray had to retire from TWO jobs (the U.S. Air Force and Tuskegee) before he was “discovered” in the late 1960s. It was the same time a 50-something historian and writer who worked, at various times, as a floor manager (read: janitor) for NBC and the operator of a sandwich stand, John Henrik Clarke, finally got a decent professor job at Hunter College.

So it was amusing to read this article, and to find out that Ana Marie Cox, for instance, is now “prestigious,” when I remember her as a 2004 blogger who supposedly upset the political journalism establishment! LOL! (Here’s the image from The New York Times Magazine cover, which showed her as The Next Big Thing. See, she’s white, so that means she can play a new game to get into the old game.) I remember her saying in that 2004 cover story that her goal was to be at MTV. How wonderful when white girls’ dreams come true! I’m sure Lena Dunham is proud! LOL!

In the end, then, this article is about how elite whites are pissed that they can’t get or keep anything for themselves without some “other” coming in and spoiling their frat party. So, no white boys: most of you will not be David Remnick, Thomas Friedman or the white male Gwen Ifill. Boo-hoo-hoo. And having an Asian female writer buffer your racism with an attempt as sophistication doesn’t take away this new truth.

James Baldwin, And His Scholars, Confront Paris: At Last Weekend’s James Baldwin International Conference In Paris And In A New Book Out Next Month, The Artist’s True Relationship With His Adopted Home Got Real

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

 

PARIS—Let’s just make this point up front that kept being made all weekend: James Baldwin was not an expatriate, and he didn’t escape anything. Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s wife, told a story about the couple meeting Baldwin at a Harlem party (her first time), and the writer calling out to the jazz master: “Hey, Dex, I was reading in the paper that we were expatriates. I thought we just lived in Paris.”

Baldwin said repeatedly that he made France his (writing) home—first from 1948 to the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in late 1950s, then from 1970 to his death in 1987 at the age of 63—because he was afraid that, as a Black man, he was going to either kill or be killed in America. During his first exile, he believed he would be murdered by Northern white racists; the second, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. With two very different generations of Black male writers and artists—elders Ralph Waldo Ellison, Albert Murray and Romare Bearden on one end, and his younger, fiercer critics LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed on the other—all determined to either bloody, or proudly survive being bloodied in, America, Baldwin, stuck in the middle of opposing generations and ideologies, received brickbats for becoming a long-term Trans-Atlantic commuter.

The writer’s relationship with France, Paris specifically, was the topic of no less than three panels at the James Baldwin International Conference, held last week at The American University of Paris. About 240 scholars, activists and writers from across the world came to a cautious nation –in a state of emergency until next month, implemented after last November’s terrorist attack—to honor their hero by gathering in his name and examining every facet of his life and work they could squeeze into the three days.

Before the conference opened, I read galleys of Jules B. Farber’s “James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence” (Pelican), a new full-length book on Baldwin’s base of operations in the southeastern corner of France. Scheduled to be published next month, it revealed a very complicated negotiation on Baldwin’s part with the European version of white supremacy.

Provence, specifically the commune of Saint-Paul de Vence, allowed him to recover from the deep depression he felt from losing Malcolm and Martin—“Far from the Harlem tenements,” writes Farber, “this was paradise for Baldwin, who, with childlike glee, wandered barefooted in the groves, picking fruit and nuts”—but he would have to work hard at creating that permanent respite. The story of how with only sporadic rent payments and a stack of IOUs, he slowly charmed Ms. Jeanne Faure, his white racist landlady, to virtually give him the Saint-Paul house he would live and work in for 17 years, is worthy of a one-act play. It’s an extraordinary example of a former “boy  preacher”’s ability to make a convert—provided the renter was the commune’s sole Black and, much more importantly, internationally famous.

That fame reverberated in ways that buoyed the spirits of the lonely writer. Baldwin transformed his house, and, therefore, his adopted community, into a must-stop, a welcome table, for traveling celebrities who sought refuge from congested Paris. It’s important to note that virtually all historical accounts show Jimmy as great company, whether entertaining American luminary friends at his home, or heavy drinking among locals in a bar in politically and socially conservative Saint-Paul. His survival instinct was always sharp, and he always made sure to surpass the needed mark.

That house, the subject of a long legal fight since Baldwin’s death and the site of at least two recent journalistic pilgrimages, is in a state of disrepair and may be destroyed. The novelist and essayist who died in that house is considered one of Paris’s many, many, national treasures, but as international travelers quickly learn, currency is constantly in flux, and the value of exotic trinkets relative.

Baldwin book cover

When Baldwin wrote in his last book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” that the Western World was “located somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and a pillar of salt,” he meant France, too. Lest we forget, the statue was an 1886 gift to America by France and created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, to celebrate, from the perspective of the formerly enslaved, their Jim Crowed, Reconstructed freedom offered by America.

“At the center of the European horror,” Baldwin continued, “is their religion: a religion by which it is intended one to be coerced, and in which no one believes, the proof being the Black/White conditions, or options, the horror into which the cowardly delusion of White supremacy seems to have transformed Africa, and the utterly intolerable nightmare of the American Dream.”

And France, as one of the members of the European axis of evil, did transform L’Afrique: it conquered lands now known as Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Chad…..the list can go on well into the next article. It was defeated by Africans who declared a free Black country called Haiti, but the price of that freedom ticket was to pay the French reparations! It’s such a beautiful country. But although it’s not hard to figure out why, it is hard sometimes to remember why when its splendor soaks into the soul. All throughout time, beauty seduces to hide away ugly truths for as long as it can, and France has beaucoup d’expertise.

(As the Baldwin conference closed, The Washington Post reported that French President Francois Hollande announced the nation would create a memorial and museum devoted to the country’s role in the slave trade. The Franco-Algerians, France’s long-suffering and abused immigrants, are still waiting for any such equivalent public acknowledgement and study of, say, the Algerian Massacre of 1962. And Gordon, explaining how the French love to spotlight American racism but remain in denial about their own, held up an issue of Liberation, a French tabloid that made that day’s cover story about Ferguson.)

Panel presenter Dorrie Wilson explained how in 2016, it’s not just the Franco-Algerians who are, as Baldwin famously called them, France’s niggers. Citizenship in Paris today, she explained, is determined by France’s arbitrary power, which creates a permanently unstable relationship for its residents who have settled into their new nation, including those recently arrived, and unwanted, Afghan, Syrian and other migrants. They are all eternal strangers in the village, she explained. And last November’s terrorism attack, she held, has made things worse, the xenophobia increased.

migrants

These ridiculous contradictory European (read: white) impulses are why “Meeting The Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” a 1971 documentary screened at one of the Baldwin/Paris conference panels, produced laughter and irritation from the assembled scholars. In the film, the novelist throws the European filmmaker’s plans for a combo travelogue-literature chat into the rubbish bin. He instead of being filmed associating with Franco-Algerians and standing in front of the Bastille, the prison that was torn down—stormed, actually—during the French revolution. Baldwin literally stood tall in front of it, mentioned that there were political prisoners in America and proclaimed: “I could be Bobby Seale. I could be Angela Davis. I could be Medgar Evers…I’m not interested in giving you ‘James Baldwin’s Paris.’”

Baldwin demands his own platform right then and there, and gets it. He exposed the double-standard of the Bastille being a symbol of liberation because the prisoners were white, when, if the imprisoned were Black, they’d be considered savages by Europe. He may have loved his enemies, but he proved he knew them well when he told the ignorant, exasperated European filmmaker that, “You [the white Western world], for me, is my prison. You are my warden.” That’s not the theatrics of a man ridiculed for decades as “Martin Luther Queen”: that’s a meaningful symbolic gesture in, and at the heart of, France. His stance is the equal of any such public act of Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells-Barnett in America.

As a “writer in a revolutionary situation,” as Baldwin describes himself later in the flick, he had to know, ever stuck in the middle—between Europe and America, and promising both rage and reconciliation (“I’m a Black man in the middle of this century”)—when and where to claim his historic space. He chose well, and it’s one of the reasons that what the conference organizers and participants referred to as “Baldwin Studies” is just beginning.

Baldwin_Poster