February 03, 2017: MEMORY OF A GREAT BLACK WRITER
I met James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe together in 1980. Much like Chinua’s greedy fly that follows a corpse into the grave, I skipped my class and followed the two men into the seminar they were attending on our campus. They were at the University of Florida (where I taught) attending a week-long workshop of Black Writers during the BHM observances. I literally bumped into them in a faculty elevator at lunchtime, and recognized Chinua by his photo.
Achebe kindly introduced Baldwin. But, barbarian engineer that I was, I’d never heard of Baldwin: I ignored him; I only had eyes for Chinua. (When I queried Achebe about his first name, “Chinua,” as I was wont to do with everybody, he explained: “Chinua’lim ogu” — May God fight for me. And, no, he apologized, he was unable to come to my house for dinner due to prior commitments.) I smiled at the two men and went away, missing a rare chance to get acquainted with James Baldwin.
Only last fall did I discover James Baldwin, the writer. I have read “Another Country” and “The Fire Next Time.” Boy! what a writer!! Reading Baldwin in full stride is like peering over the rim of a volcano in full wrath. His eloquent prose reminds one of the militant imagery in Julia Howe’s lyrics for The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
I never knew what I missed all those years. Concerning Baldwin I was as clueless as the proverbial nerd parodied in the following allegory:
(Jane, a coed majoring in literature): “John’s your name? Do you like Rudyard Kipling?”
(John, an engineering major): “I dunno. I never kipled in any kind of yard before.”