James Baldwin was center stage on June 15 at Kehrein Center for the Arts in Austin during an event hosted by Oak Park Festival Theatre, along with several other organizations from Oak Park and the West Side.
Eddie Glaude, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, channeled the late Black essayist and novelist during a panel discussion on Baldwin’s life and work.
Glaude, author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, said while in the process of writing the book, which was published last year, he had to really grapple with the thrust of Baldwin’s words.
Those words, he said, forced him to confront some hard truths about himself.
“Jimmy is demanding that we encounter honestly who we are,” Glaude said. “What’s so distinctive about the American project is that we’re comfortable in our myths and illusions because we don’t want to look the evidence of who we are squarely in the face. So there’s a kind of adolescence that defines this place.”
Glaude spoke virtually to a panel of three people seated onstage: Saudia Davis, director of the Center for Creative Entrepreneurship; director and actor Ron O.J. Parson; and actress Emma Sipora Tyler, who moderated the discussion.
“While I was writing this book, I drank too much Irish whiskey and the reason is because I wasn’t exactly prepared,” Glaude said. “[Baldwin’s] telling me over and over again, ‘If you’re going to write about this place, old boy, you’re going to have to deal with you now, because the messiness of the world is actually a reflection of the messiness of our interior lives.
“I had to deal with the fact that I’m a wounded little boy who still has daddy issues,” Glaude added. “I had to deal with what was in me.”
Parson said he remembers watching Baldwin on the The Dick Cavett Show in the 1960s and the things he said still resonate, adding that he acted in Blues for Mister Charlie, a play Baldwin wrote in 1964.
“You can literally put him on a talk show today and he can say the same thing and it would be as relevant,” Parson said. “I think it’s all theater — the novels, the films, all of that. What we go through in society, a writer can make that happen on stage and say something.”
And what Baldwin would say, Glaude explained, is that we have an ethical imperative to bear witness, to be honest, to tell the truth — even though “we’re living in a time where lies abound.”