Actor/Expert: We can still learn from James Baldwin’s writing

By Meaghan Latella

In 1963, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy set up a private meeting with author James Baldwin to discuss race relations in America. The meeting took place in Kennedy’s Manhattan apartment.

Baldwin invited civil rights advocates Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, Kenneth Clark and a young freedom rider named Jerome Smith to accompany him. Baldwin and his colleagues spoke passionately about the heavy presence of discrimination that plagued America during the 1960s.

But the secret meeting was largely a failure, Charles Reese, an actor and expert on Baldwin, told about 50 people at Washington and Lee University Feb. 12.

Charles Reese leading a discussion on James Baldwin at W&L.
Charles Reese leading a discussion on James Baldwin at Washington and Lee University. Meaghan Latella/ The Rockbridge Report

 

The activists wanted President John F. Kennedy to personally escort black students to school in parts of the South with the highest presence of discrimination, Reese said. They hoped it could be a way for the White House to show people it was working to eliminate racism. But the Kennedys rejected the idea, Reese said.

Lost to history

For many years, the meeting remained unknown to the public.

“I’d never heard of the meeting before,” said Professor Ted DeLaney, an associate professor of history at Washington and Lee and the man in charge of bringing Reese to campus. “Pretty much the Kennedys [were] trying to keep the cap on [the meeting] because they [didn’t] want to lose the support of the Democratic Party in the South, because white Southerners were Democrats then.”

Reese’s talk was a part of the university’s celebration of Black History Month. Reese played Baldwin in the off-Broadway play “James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire.”

Reese included several dramatic excerpts from the play in his presentation. He said the play was an attempt to capture how Baldwin saw the world and how he felt about racism in the United States.

The plot centers on the secret meeting that Robert Kennedy organized.

During the civil rights movement, Baldwin’s writing became his weapon, Reese said. Baldwin’s novels are widely read, and include “Go Tell it On a Mountain,” “The Fire Next Time” and “Notes of a Native Son.” As an openly gay black activist, Baldwin “had a mouth on him,” Reese said, and was not afraid to voice his opinions about race relations.

 

Writing in Paris

“[Baldwin] got to the point in his life where he could not remain in America,” said Reese. “He became an expatriate.”

Reese was referring to Baldwin’s move to Paris to concentrate on his writing away from the distractions that racism and discrimination presented him in America. The move came early on in Baldwin’s writing career, when he was only in his mid-20s.

Earlier last week, civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams spoke at Lexington’s First Baptist Church about race relations in today’s America.

“Charles Reese was thrilled that he was following Myrlie Evers-Williams,” said DeLaney. “Charles has an interesting way of teaching, and I think that is what made the visit so successful.”

The common theme between Reese’s and Evers-Williams’ talks was that racial divides have not been entirely eliminated. While much progress has been made, both speakers said there is more work to be done.

“You just have to go read [James Baldwin] to see how we can actually learn from that actual writing today,” said Reese.

DeLaney agreed with Reese that people can still benefit by reading Baldwin’s work.

“James Baldwin … is one of the most important fiction authors of the 20th century,” DeLaney said. “Some of his books provide a unique insight into race relations and black city life.”