“There’s a way we can always go back to Baldwin because through him we can steady ourselves,” said Dr. Melvin L. Rogers on the inspiring words of author and civil rights activist James Baldwin. Earlier this month at ALOUD, Rogers, an associate professor of Political Science and African-American Studies at UCLA, was joined on stage by novelist Nina Revoyr to reflect on the lasting impact of Baldwin’s body of work. Gathering at Central Library on the evening of the terrorist attack in Nice and in light of recent tragic events in St. Paul and Dallas, Baldwin’s calls to rise up against injustice were just as urgent as when he first composed them over 50 years ago.
This special ALOUD program was co-presented with Pacifica Archives for a live radio broadcast on KPFK 90.7 FM, airing across the country. Brian DeShazor, former host of From the Vault radio program, moderated this first-ever live broadcast at the Library, which spotlighted rare audio recordings of Baldwin from 1963-1968 from the Pacifica Archives.
The program began with a clip of an oration called, The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, in which Baldwin passionately declared the poet as the most important figure in society. Revoyr explained that Baldwin—who was speaking during the civil rights movement—saw the need for poets to offer a unique voice to convey the experiences of such trying times—a voice that did not simply tell us why something happened like a historian might, but told us what something felt like. Rogers agreed, adding that Baldwin so deeply valued artists—in particularly poets—because “[artists] resist the temptation to become complicit and complacent.”
The audience also heard recordings of Baldwin reading from his trailblazing, intimately charged novel, Giovanni’s Room, then another fiery speech after the murder of four girls in Birmingham, Alabama. The diverse topics illustrated the range of Baldwin’s powerful voice and the gravity of his skills as an orator as his emotions varied from ecstatic and hopeful to melancholy and angry.
The final archival recording of the evening was an impromptu introduction that Baldwin gave for Dr. Martin Luther King (taped in the home of Marlon Brando) weeks before King’s assassination in which Baldwin urged everyone to take a critical look at government. “If we mean to be a democratic society then we need to be more clear-eyed about a government that acts for us,” Melvin contextualized Baldwin’s speech, which was spoken with the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
During the Q&A with the audience, Revoyr remarked how a plea for unity echoed beneath all of Baldwin’s pleas to stand up against injustice, asking the question: “How can we as a country act as a collective whole?” Both Melvin and Revoyr cited current tragic events and how we could all look to Baldwin for solace and for a “moral light” at the end of a dark tunnel.
Listen to the podcast of this ALOUD program. Learn more about the James Baldwin archives and many other historical collections at Pacifica Archives chronicling the political, cultural, and artistic movements of the second half of the 20th century.
Photos above by Gary Leonard.