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Book Club Meeting Transcript
Civil Rights and James Baldwin

Guest: Biographer David Leeming

Chat Transcript
Club Leader:

David Leeming: Welcome! I'm here.

Club Leader: Thank you for joining the chat. This chat will focus on Civil Rights and James Baldwin. Can you start off the chat with a definition of civil rights?

David Leeming: Civil rights are the rights that all citizens of any nation should be entitled to. I think he expanded the definition to carry it beyond such matters as voting rights. For him civil rights applied also to one's inner being. The horrible thing about racism is what it does to the inner being of both the racist and his victim.

Club Leader: Let's take a question from a book club member - TimmMcCann asks: The style and tone of fiction has changed today. If James was just starting out today would he be accepted?

David Leeming: Well, like anyone else, he would be affected by today's world and his writing would reflect that. But he would be the same James Baldwin and his writing would be accepted or not accepted depending on the audience accordingly.

Sarah asks: Do you think African and White Americans have come to terms with the past, and are we moving towards a future together, as Mr. Baldwin suggested we need to do?

David Leeming: I would like to say yes and I certainly hope so; but we have a long way to go because of the continuing gap in economic opportunities.

Spoonman500 asks: Do you guys think that things have changed much these days?

David Leeming: My opinion is that for people who have had exceptional educational and/or economic opportunities things have changed--obviously. But what about the continuing poverty and obvious despair in so many inner cities?

Munazzah asks: How did his writing change over his lifetime based on his experiences traveling the world?

David Leeming: Visiting places outside of the U.S.--even outside of NYC--broadened his horizons and in some cases--especially Paris (see Giovanni's Room) gave him new material. But the main effect of the visits abroad was to give him space to think and to write what he would have written had he been given the space that a writer in the U.S. not burdened by racism and the necessity of being a spokesperson is given.

Club Leader:Mr. Leeming - you met James Baldwin in Turkey. When did you meet James Baldwin and how would you describe him? How did he impact your view of race and social consciousness?

David Leeming: Meeting James Baldwin in Turkey at a mutual friend's house in December of 1961 was one of the most exciting and pivotal moments of my life. He was sitting at a kitchen counter during a party and I watched over his shoulder as he wrote the last words of ANOTHER COUNTRY. I can say with all honesty that James Baldwin changed my life--made me, over the years I knew him, stop thinking "white" and led to my committment to combatting racism via my writing and teaching.

stovman asks: I am a white cuban emigrant, ah and homosexual, I live in Florida the time, and I am very ashame of my white family, for their radical and racist attitudes, I do not have a relation with them, but I can not get in contact here where I live with a more cosmopolitan atmosfere, everybody lives in Florida like separated though they work toguether....why is so difficult to understand that race or sexuality does not really matters?

David Leeming: I agree; it can be difficult. You have to find people who can love you for who you are and who can see the individual YOU rather than some arbitrary category.

Munazzah asks: How did Baldwin define personal identity and how personal identity impacts how one is treated in society?

David Leeming: I don't know that he defined it specifically except to say that we all are vehicles for some miraculous individual being worthy of being recognized as such. I'm sure he would say that it's a pity how rare it is that people are treated according to their personal identities rather than according to arbitrary definitions and false myths having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

Anaghia asks: Was Mr. Baldwin college educated and if so, where did he attend college?

David Leeming: No--his highest education led to the HS diploma at DeWitt Clinton HS in the Bronx, NYC in 1941.

nativeson in Albany, NY asks: Hello. Prof. Leeming, Baldwin's standing as a novelist has never appeared to be quite as high as his reputation as an essayist. Why do you think this is so?

David Leeming: I think his essays are shorter, more concise, and therefore, in some ways more dramatic and at the same time more accessible. In his novels he tended to make use of story as a king of parable--really to illustrate the things he said in his essays. Show and Tell--in the essays he told, in the novels he showed. E.G. in his essays he talks often about the urgency of applying love to both personal and larger--e.g. racial--relationships. GIOVANNI'S ROOM (a novel) is obviously an illustration of this.

Nilaja asks: If Baldwin had been heterosexual do you think his views would have been more popular?

David Leeming: No, not really, because he would have avoided the Hallmark Card approach. Anyway, his novels are about homosexuals and heterosexuals and those who cannot be defined that way.

polly asks: What was that attitude of European writers, particularly French writers, toward Baldwin in the 60s and 70s?

David Leeming: He was treated with some interest, but he was, after all, writing in English and being published in the US. But eventually when translations came out he had a good audience that appreciated him and he was interviewed fairly often on French TV for instance.

Loretta Poindexter of Cleveland, OH asks: Did Mr. Baldwin make a statement as to why he was leaving America?

David Leeming: Many statements. The first time he left he said it was to save his own life as he was about to be overcome by the racism that affected his life, took his friends, etc. He also talked about leaving simply to find time and space to develop as a writer. But he never left the U.S. for good--he felt strongly his birthright as an American a birthright that he would not give up to racism and racists.

Nilaja asks: In your opinion can the U.S. ever achieve Civil Rights without it becoming a law, but a way of life?

David Leeming: I think that over a long period of time people will learn as so many young people especially today are learning, that it is possible to ignore the color line in l ove and life in general and that when we stop thinking "white" and "black" and start thinking "human" there will be the possibility of the way of life you ask about.

Tamar in Bronx, NY asks: Which of James books told the most of his feelings about christianity?

David Leeming: Probably the Fire Next Time.

Ynotkwa asks: Did Baldwin have more adversaries than allies?

David Leeming: Well, if you count al those people in our society who are unwilling to think human rather than "whi lte"--yes, he had more adversaries, but if you are talking about the people who read him and knew him and wanted a better world, he had more allies--at least allies in some sense--not always very active ones.

Jackie King of Bloomfield, MI Asks: where would I look for more information on Baldwin's relationship with Malcolm X and where can I get photos of James Baldwin?

David Leeming: You could apply at the Schomburg center in NYC for photos and look in books in libraries about Baldwin--there are several bios. The best place to look for info on JB and Malcolm might be the Fire next Time and the bios--such as mine.

fredw in Bethesda, MD asks: During his time in Paris, did James Baldwin encounter Jean Paul Sartre? Sartre's work on anti-semitism seems similar to Baldwin's view on American race relations.

David Leeming: He met him a couple of times in the company of Richard Wright. I don't think there was direct influence, but yes, there is the similarity--maybe not too surprising given the points of view of both men, that you mention.

nativeson in Albany, NY asks: Can you explain briefly what kind of guidance Baldwin received as a young man from mentors like Beauford Delaney and Richard Wright? They both seem to be such a contrast in attitudes and approaches to life that it seems an unlikely combination of influences.

David Leeming: I think we are all influenced in various aspects of our lives by various people of different sorts. Wright for a while was a supporter of JB as a young writer--he encouraged him. Beauford was a much closer influence--in the personal level. The first a literary father the second a spiritual father as it were.

mccleary in asks: Could you characterize Jimmy Balwin's view of human nature?

David Leeming: Corruptible but beautiful if only its representatives could take the risk of saying yes to real love, to real life rather than to false masks of life.

henry meyerson of hoboken, NY: Are you aware of any interaction between mr. baldwin and allard lowenstein? if so, could you advise about this. i'm a playwright and have written a play i'm now circulating for possible production. any information regarding lowenstein would be helpful.

David Leeming: Sorry, I don't know of any interaction between the two.

Bill Hinkle of Sao Paulo, Brasil asks: What was the significance, if any, of the public exchange between Norman Mailer and James Baldwin.

David Leeming: Two angry young men--Baldwin resented what he saw as Mailer's falsely macho approach and what he saw as Mailer's arrogant attempt to categorize the "Negro".

Anaghia asks: How seriously did the people of other countries take Mr. Baldwins' complaints about the treatment of blacks in the US?

David Leeming: I think very seriously--especially in France and germany, where his play The Amen Corner toured, for instance.

cedricb asks: If Mr. Baldwin were alive today, what writers would he say most pattern their works after his writings? Understandably, this question is purely speculative. Thanks.

David Leeming: Yes; I'm afraid I can't speculate on that and I doubt that he would suggest that other writers patterned their works on his.

Spoonman500 asks: Since the 80's I think that racism is on the upswing. I think that 8 years of Reagan and then Bush (both Sr. and Jr.) played a part in this too. Do you think Reagan impacted the race issue to a high degree?

David Leeming: Yes--he certainly set things back with the whole trickle down economic theory that assumes some sort of essential morality in the "decisions" of something called the Market. This is a problem that remains with us and that prevents our establishing the proper priorities and makes businesses like prisons bigger than business like training and rehabilitation and simply helping those in need.

Ynotkwa in asks: How was Baldwin perceived by the mass media?

David Leeming: With interest until he began to become what they called "bitter" after all of the assassinations. Then they began to treat him more negatively

Nilaja asks: I just want to say thank you to David Leeming this was very informative.

David Leeming: Thank you--I enjoyed it too.

Ynotkwa asks: What was the most controversial book Baldwin wrote?

David Leeming: You mean my bio or the Fire Next Time? No in both cases anyway as far as I know.

Tamar in Bronx, NY asks: Mr. Leeming, what country are you from?

David Leeming: The U.S.

coach in asks: I read a lot Jame Baldwin work back in the seventies I always thought he was highly intelligent and intelligent however I thought his views on the church and race was made for good discussions but you always have to deal with individuals cultural experiences. In a large sense he did not live in the real Black American world he considered himself for the most part an elitist. My question to James Baldwin today would be do you believe in sin and forgiveness?

David Leeming: I don't think he ever considered himself an elitist--he DID feel driven by a need to associate with and "preach" to and love both blacks and so-called whites.

Tamar in Bronx, NY asks: I would also like to thank Mr. Lemming, I purchased your book years ago and loved it.

David Leeming: Thanks Tamar.

Amanda Grihm of Stone Mountain, GA asks: Was James Baldwin invited to speak at the March on Washington? If he was, why didn't he? And, what was he going to speak about?

David Leeming: He was not asked to talk probably because it was felt by some of the leaders that his homosexuality would "color" and undermine the event.

stovman asks: Sir I would like to know what are were the social and historical facts that have made the black american population to become to religions like the criticizing religion and has taken them away so deeple from their african roots? When I see that we cubans are so close historicly and in Cuba is predominant on the cuban- african and on the increase between whites the native african religions.Did Baldwin ever spoke about african religion and tradition like Yoruba, vodoo ect.

Club Leader: Thank you for joining - we will have one more question.

David Leeming: The religious question is very difficult and much too complicated to go into here--it has to do with the situation of slaves coming from various language and cultural backgrounds and having to find some common solace, etc.

Club Leader: What was Baldwins's impact worldwide? How has he influenced Black's america?

David Leeming: I think the answer is the same for both "audiences." He was a "VOICE" of prophecy--a witness to the failures of our culture. He said things that needed to be said and he contributed to what he saw as the honor and beauty of a culture that had for so long resisted oppression even as it contributed so much to the larger culture. Inevitably he has added to the self-esteem of African Americans who have heard him.

Club Leader: Thank you for joining the chat! Mr. Leeming - you were great - thank you so much for joining us!

David Leeming: Thank you!

Club Leader: Thank you book club members for your great questions! A chat transcript will be available within the hour!

David Leeming: Thank you.


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