Writing Black Lives || Radcliffe Institute

Writing Black Lives || Radcliffe Institute


– Hello, and good afternoon. – Good afternoon. – Welcome to the Radcliffe
Institute for Advanced Study. I am Robin Bernstein. I’m a professor of African
and African-American studies and chair of Women, Gender,
and Sexuality here at Harvard. It is my pleasure to welcome
you here this afternoon. And I have some groups that
I would like to particularly welcome to Radcliffe. I welcome three groups
of undergraduates from Suffolk University, from
UMass Boston, and from Harvard. Yeah, absolutely. [APPLAUSE] And we also have a group
of high school students here from TechBoston Academy. Welcome. [APPLAUSE] Writing black lives matters. If you doubt the power and
significance of this act, consider the historical
efforts to prevent it. The Middle Passage
not only killed people and stole the freedom and
labor of the survivors, but also deliberately
separated Africans who spoke the same language,
and thereby shattered systems of communication
along with systems of kinship. As Cynthia Hartman and
others have taught us, the Middle Passage
irrevocably disrupted, and in some cases,
prevented, the writing of millions of black lives. In the Americas, white
enslavers systematically prevented African-Americans
from reading and writing. At first, by custom. Later, by law. Always, by force. This suppression of literacy,
too, assaulted efforts to write black lives. And yet, African-Americans have
always written their own lives. They have written them in
autobiographical narratives and poetry, fiction and plays,
sermons and legal arguments and newspaper columns,
and so much more. They have written on
paper and in breath, in musical and oral traditions. They have transcribed their
lives in material culture, from homes and hair,
to quilts and gardens. And in visual culture,
paintings, and sculpture. And films, television,
and digital environments. And African-Americans have
found extraordinary ways to write each other’s lives. I think of Zora Neale
Hurston, novelist, and also Barnard and Columbia-trained
anthropologist, who in the 1930s, combined
her ethnographic and literary skills to write the folk
lives of African-Americans in North Florida,
Jamaica, and Haiti. I think also of
less-renowned people, like Joseph WH Cathert, a
19th-century janitor who combed newspapers for
writing about black lives, and then pasted those clippings
into more than 100 scrapbooks. An archive of black
lives, and also an original multi-volume
collective history that accomplished what
Ellen Gruber Garvey has called “writing with scissors.” I think also of another
prolific scissors writers of black lives– LS Alexander Gumby,
a black gay man who hosted a salon during
the Harlem Renaissance and who created, again,
over 100 scrapbooks that documented black history as
well as the immediate world that Gumby knew and co-created. And of course, there
was a long tradition of African-American
narrative biography. We can think back
almost two centuries to Susan Paul, an
African-American schoolteacher who wrote in 1835 a biography
of her student, James Jackson. Or we can think of Josephine
Brown, the youngest daughter of abolitionist William
Wells Brown, who published a biography
of her father in 1856. We can think of milestone
books of the 20th century and 21st centuries. Nell Irvin Painter, on
the life and symbolism of Sojourner Truth. Tiya Miles, on the Afro-Cherokee
family of Shoe Boots and Doll. And Kendra Fields, on her
ancestors’ westward migrations. The list could go on and on. And it does go on. It goes on today. Our three august speakers
today carry forward the best traditions of African-Americans
writing black lives. It is my honor to
introduce them to you. Robert Fitzgerald
Reid-Pharr is professor of Studies of Women,
Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. Prior to coming
to Harvard, he was a distinguished and
presidential professor of English and American
studies at the Graduate Center of the City University
of New York. He is the author of four
acclaimed books, all of which examine from different angles
the intellectual, domestic, embodied, literary, and
erotic lives of black people. His book Black Gay Man– Essays won the Publishing
Triangle Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction. And his most recent
book, Archives of Flesh– African America, Spain,
and Posthumanist Critique, received honorable mention
for the 2017 William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the
Modern Language Association. A recipient of the 2016 John
Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship,
Robert Reid-Pharr is now writing a biography based
on recently available archives of James Baldwin. In this biography, Reid-Pharr
explores the interplay between Baldwin’s public
life as a celebrity and the political, historical,
and social context in which Baldwin lived and wrote. Reid-Pharr has said,
“Of most interest to me is how Baldwin’s
status as a celebrity reveals something of the
impossibly fraught relationship that Americans in
our various forms have to celebrities
and celebrity culture.” The act of writing biography
is intimate– perhaps sometimes too intimate. Reid-Pharr insists
in his words, quote, “I’m getting us up close
to Baldwin’s fragrant, living flesh.” A fraught arrangement
that Reid-Pharr believes Baldwin
likely would not have enjoyed or even tolerated. Writing black lives
is complicated. Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the dean
of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, as
well as the Daniel PS Paul Professor of Constitutional
Law at Harvard Law School and professor of history
at Harvard University. A legal historian, an
expert on constitutional law and educational law and policy,
a member of the American Law Institute, a fellow of the
American Bar Foundation, Dean Brown-Nagin is the
author of Courage to Dissent– Atlanta and the Long History
of the Civil Rights Movement, which won the 2012
Bancroft Prize, which is the highest honor
in a work of history. Courage to Dissent also won
the John Philip Reid Book Award and the Zora Neale Hurston/
Richard Wright Legacy Award. Brown-Nagin’s forthcoming book
explores the life and times of Constance Baker Motley, an
African-American judge, Civil Rights activist, lawyer, state
senator, borough president, and protege of
Thurgood Marshall. Motley was called
the Civil Rights queen for her litigation work
during the 1940s and 1950s. Brown-Nagin has said
of Motley, quote, “Over seven decades
of public life, she was part of the waves
of citizen-led activism that truly changed this
country, changed our law, and changed our policy. It’s because her life was so
entwined with this century’s changes that Motley can
be understood to represent American experience.” And finally, Imani Perry is
the Hughes-Rogers professor of African-American Studies
and faculty associate in the Program of Law
and Public Affairs and Gender and Sexuality
Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of six books
on subjects as varied and also as interconnected as the
black national anthem, the intersection of race and
politics in the United States, the politics and
poetics of hip-hop, and the feminist
analysis of patriarchy. In 2019, she published Breathe– A Letter to My Sons, in which
Perry writes from her own life perspective as a black parent
raising black children. In the face of increasing and
seemingly irredeemable racism, Perry draws on her
experiences and those of previous generations
of African-Americans to offer love, beauty,
inspiration, pragmatic wisdom, and courage to the
rising generation. This book follows closely on
the heels of Perry’s 2013 book, Looking for Lorraine– The Radiant and Radical
Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Adjectives, I should add, that
could apply to Imani Perry. Looking for Lorraine won the
2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, the
Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction,
the Judy Grahn Triangle Award for Lesbian Nonfiction,
the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa Christian Goss Award,
and many other honors, including being named as a New
York Times Notable Book of 2018 and being an answer,
as well as a question, on the TV show Jeopardy. To write black lives
is to survive jeopardy. To risk intimacy,
to recover truth, and to inscribe the past
as a gift to the future. Please join me in welcoming
Robert Reid-Pharr, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, and Imani
Perry to the stage. [APPLAUSE] – Thank you, Robin. Wow. Oh, my gosh. – Fantastic. – Thank you, Robin, for
that lovely and learned introduction. That was fabulous. And welcome, everyone,
to Radcliffe. I’m delighted to
have you all here. Those of you in
the audience here, as well as those of you who
are joining us via Livestream. I think that
includes my parents. If figured out the
technology, so hi. Now, I am delighted to
moderate this discussion with Imani and Robert. As Robin explained,
each of us has chosen to write a biography of sorts. And each of us has
chosen to write about an eminent
African-American figure. Now, these figures
are complimentary. They all were deeply involved
in the black freedom struggle. They all were gendered subjects
along different dimensions. They all were public figures
with sometimes complicated relationships with their
publics and with the idea of representing a race. And each life
causes us to ponder the enduring question
of what Dubois called double consciousness. Of what it means to be black and
American and African-American. So we have much to discuss. I want to start off by
ensuring that all of us are on the same page. So some members of
the audience may not be familiar with
Hansberry and Baldwin. And so I wonder if
you could briefly describe who Lorraine Hansberry
and James Baldwin were and why they’re important. – OK, I’ll begin with Hansberry. I want to just say
before I begin, it’s so wonderful to
be with both of you. But also, this is a
rare occasion for me because I’m actually nervous. And I’m almost never
nervous speaking. But both my mother and
my dissertation advisor are here, which like
never happens for me. So I sort of feel like
I’m 20 years in the past. So Hansberry is extraordinary. She is a black woman born on the
south side of Chicago in 1930 to a middle-class
striving family. Her father’s a
real estate mogul. And she comes of
age in the context of the intensity of
post-war political activism and engagement. And she makes her
way from Chicago to the University of Wisconsin. She has a series of
dropping-out moments. And what she becomes
best known for is, of course, being the
author of A Raisin in the Sun, which is the first play
by a black woman which was produced on Broadway. The youngest winner of the
Drama Critics Circle Award. And really, before age
30, becomes not just a very famous playwright,
but someone who changes the course of American theater. Sets the stage for
subsequent representations of black Americans that are
serious, that are nuanced. And then she also develops
into a political activist of sorts in a number of ways. On issues ranging from
gender and sexuality to the freedom movement
and left-wing politics. And so I wanted to write
about her because she was this huge
mid-century figure, but there hadn’t been a
real comprehensive biography written. – Wonderful. Thank you. Robert. – I’m also nervous. Anybody’s dissertation advisor
makes me nervous as well, so. [LAUGHTER] James Baldwin was born
in 1924 in Harlem. One of things that
I’d like to say is that his parents both
were southern immigrants. His mother had come from the
eastern shore of Maryland. His father, from the
New Orleans area. And they were
strivers in their way, although Baldwin grew up in
a very, very underprivileged situation– eight brothers and sisters. His mother had actually
given birth to him prior to her marriage to
James Baldwin’s father. Baldwin then graduates
from high school and enters the downtown
literary scene. He was thought,
until quite recently, to be the first person to
have published in The Partisan Review. Probably the first black
person to have published in The Partisan Review. That probably was
Anatole Broyard, though we didn’t find
that out until later. And he then goes on to publish
several unbelievable American novels. Of course, Go Tell
It On the Mountain is the breakthrough novel. It was for me, really,
the novel that turned me into a literary critic I tell the story that
I found Go Tell it on the Mountain as a kid,
as a 14-year-old in 1979 in North Carolina. And I picked it up because it
was the first-ever novel that I’d seen with– it was the first
ever book that I’d seen with a black
person on the cover. And so I picked it up. And it was like, thank god
it was this book, right? But also he publishes
as a second novel Giovanni’s Room, which is one
of the grand breakthrough, what we think of as LGBTQ
novels, in American history. The reason I think
that we are now so interested in James
Baldwin is that he spends eight years in France. But then he comes
back in the late ’50s because the Civil Rights
Movement is really getting going. And he becomes a
real spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement
in the United States. And in 1963, Baldwin is on
the cover of Time magazine, talking about Birmingham. He then becomes friends– Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. And is thought to
be a person who stands between those two poles
in African-American political life. And then goes on to publish
a grand number of novels over the course of his life. To be involved, obviously, as
a fantastic essayist and also as a playwright before he dies
in 1986 from cancer at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence
in France. – Wonderful. And if I may,
Constance Baker Motley was born in 1921 in New Haven. She was the child of
immigrants from Nevis. She grew up in a
working-class family. Eventually, she
went to law school and became a protege
of Thurgood Marshall. A groundbreaking
civil rights lawyer, one of few women lawyers
arguing in courtrooms across the country in the 1950s. She litigated cases like
Brown vs Board of Education. She represented the Freedom
Riders, Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, as Robin mentioned,
she had this amazing career. A short career, but
important career in New York City politics. And then was appointed to
the bench by Lyndon Johnson– the first black woman appointed
to the federal judiciary. And so in many ways, you can
say that Constance Baker Motley is one of the architects,
legal architects, of postwar Civil
Rights-era America, who made it possible for
all of us to be here today. She really helped
to disestablish American apartheid. Now, let’s talk about genre. Biography is both
beloved and besmirched as an historical form. In fact, both of
you seem to have a bit of a complicated
relationship to the genre. So Robert, you’ve
spoken about being, quote, “suspicious”
of the practice of biographical writing. Yes. And Imani, you’ve called
Looking for Lorraine an experimental biography. And then whenever
people describe my book as a biography, I sort of say,
I’m not writing a biography. What are you talking about? So the question is
what’s to be gained? And what’s to be
lost from writing about history from the
perspective of biography? What is the controversy
would you say? – Well, I was going
to tell you the truth, but I’ll tell you
the real truth. [LAUGHTER] And that is that one
of my shameful things– I’m actually a
little bit ashamed of it– is that I actually read
biographies secretly and enjoy reading biographies. It got bad when I was reading
the three-volume Richardson biography of Picasso. So I did that thing I used
to do in junior high school and put a paper bag
on the outside of it so that people
wouldn’t know that I was reading about Picasso. Which made it only worse. I decided that I wanted
to write biography before deciding I wanted
to work on James Baldwin because I understood exactly
that it was a suspect genre for me, both
as a literary critic and a cultural historian. And I thought that as
a practice for a writer and an intellectual who is
interested in breaking down some of the barriers
that we have in our own profession and
some of the hierarchies that we have, that it
probably made sense for me to run towards
the thing that I think is somehow debased versus
running away from that. And see what it is that is so– I didn’t understand why I
found biography so suspect. It just had been
taught to me that way. And so I began to really
read a lot more biographies, but also to think
really seriously about what it is that that
form can actually bring for us. It can give us some really
amazing things, I think. But also, what it is that
happens when one really gets involved in archival
practice, especially– I’ll say this and
I’ll hush up about it. Especially because so much
in African-American thought is about how our past
has been robbed for us. But in particularly
in the 20th century, and particularly with the
case of James Baldwin, there’s a lot of paper. And there’s a lot
of material to use. And I thought, what happens if
we actually are approaching– if the writer is approaching
the task as a task of plenty? And the difficulty
of what it means that you have so much
material available to you? Which it really is the problem
with the James Baldwin stuff. What can we do both in terms
of talking about his life, but also talking about
the practice of how we talk about black life, period? You know? – Wonderful. – Yeah. It’s interesting. I refer to Looking for Lorraine
as an experimental biography, and also a third-person memoir. I don’t know that I’m entirely
skeptical of the genre of biography. But the ways in which I think
memoirs tend to be so effective is that they distill
threads of a person’s life that allow you to catch a
likeness of who they are in a kind of substantive way. It is very different than
necessarily detailing every single step along the
course of their life, which I think has its value. And then also I
think as a form, it drew me in because Hansberry
has always been a muse of mine. And I, as a writer,
have been interested in, and as a scholar, how
does one transition from a style of writing
that is primarily devoted to making people
think to one that is also devoted to making people feel? And there’s something
about the examination of a life at an
interior level that opens up the kind of space
for emotional resonance. And I think it’s in some
ways sort of the kernel of creative writing, right? And to merge the work
of going through all of those boxes of papers, right? Boxes and boxes of
papers and details, in order to pull that out. To engage in that distillation
felt like a meaningful exercise for me. And it also felt like a way
of offering Hansberry’s life as a gift. I’ll just say initially, I
took exception to the fact that Hansberry’s closest
friends, Baldwin and Nina Simone, had all of these
biographies about them. They were iconic
figures, and she– – But not the really
important one. [LAUGHTER] Right. And so, I was like, I want
to give her a rightful place. And then I actually,
as I was engaged in the process of writing,
I was like, I don’t want to present an iconic portrait. I actually want a
fully human one. Because part of what I think her
life offers, short as it was– she died at age 34– is a way to imagine
our own lives. A confrontation with illness,
with fear, with desire, with loneliness,
with depression. All those sorts of things. And also, this vast imagination. And so that’s something
that is also part of craft. How to do that in the
enterprise of writing is something different
than simply saying, I’m going to tell
you her full story. But I’m going to give you the– I want to try and get the heart,
or maybe the gut, of her life. Yeah. – Wonderful. So writing about that
complexity and that fullness, I think, and being really honest
about the complexity in a life seems to be contrary
to what a lot of people think about when they
think about biography. They think about
it as hagiography. And I think we’re all doing
something really different in our work. I want to pick up
on– you said a muse. You talked about
Lorraine as muse. And so I want to ask you
both about your relationship to your subject. About what drew
you to these lives. And do you want to
continue, Imani? – Sure. I mean, here was– oh, I can’t. I think Baldwin described her
as so impressive a figure and so glamorous a form. Something like that? And I think the model
of someone who’s several generations
older who really pursued her life,
her creativity, in an unapologetic fashion. And also stayed
committed to her politics at a point in which
it was dangerous. At a point at which
it would’ve been very easy to ride
the wave of her fame. And instead, she used
the moment of becoming famous as a basis for
actually trying to facilitate the freedom movement. Those qualities are such
an inspiration to me. They feel like a reminder
of the kind of people we’re supposed to be. And so there’s that. And then at a very
personal level, as I was writing
through and reading the last couple of years
of her life, for me, there was also a
resonance with illness. And I don’t have a
terminal illness. But with someone with
chronic diseases. And actually, the process of
trying to do all the work you can when your body is fragile. That’s in some ways, that’s
nearly a universal experience, although we don’t talk
about it in that way. But it’s a big part of my
connection to her, yeah. – Well, it’s interesting. I’d already said that
I’d started reading James Baldwin as a teen. And then obsessively read
everything by James Baldwin within a couple of years. And obviously identified
with this man, especially because I was
also raised a Pentecostal. It wasn’t just that James
Baldwin was a black person. But I’d never seen anyone talk
about black Pentecostalism, period, as something that
could even be talked about. Our community was
devout, but you just didn’t talk about
that, even at school. And also to be an
ex-Pentecostal was something I’d never heard
anyone actually examine. So this was mind-opening to me,
that the world in which I lived was a world that could
be written about it all. So it changed who I was
as a human being, got me on a path of being a person
interested in literature. And actually turning
into a person who is a literary and
cultural critic. I want to say the aside to
that is that you then spend– I’ve spent now years
in these papers. I should say that this
is a massive collection. And the estate allows–
so it’s 30 linear feet. Hundreds of thousands
of pieces of paper. But the estate allows no
photocopying or photographing. So I’ve been transcribing for
the last two and something years. I’m up to 700 pages
of transcription. In 1979, I also had a fight with
my mother about taking typing. Which she won, thank god. Thank god. What’s interesting to me about
it is that when you– for me, this is a person who
is a full-on icon. What’s interesting when
you get close in to all of those letters, all of
those financial records, all of those fragments
of writing that are mainly fantastic
and sometimes bad. What happens is that you get
close to a natural human being. Or you get close to
a person’s foibles. Or you get close to
a person’s paranoia. Or you get close to a person’s– so the aspects of an individual
that you don’t identify with. And so that has
been a trip for me, to know much as I now know
about a person who I still think of as truly one of
the central intellectuals of the American 20th century. But also who, in order
to be true to the craft, I have to, in fact,
de-hagiography– I’m not sure what that would be. You have to turn him into
something other than an icon. Especially now, when
in fact, in 2016, we had the release of
I Am Not Your Negro. And it presents James Baldwin
as an unbelievably beautiful figure in some ways. I think a two-dimensional one,
but an unbelievably beautiful figure. And then just last year,
If Beale Street Could Talk came out as a film. And so one of the things
that I’m trying to do is to move away from
this idea of Baldwin as this YouTube version of
Baldwin toward something that is actually
a little grittier. And also, more useful to
what we are doing now, what we are going through now. And the last thing
I’ll say about it is that we truly live
in celebrity culture. We did elect a reality
television star to the presidency. And I think that that
thing, that impulse of liking that sort of
flatness of our leaders, or liking that sort
of flatness of people who are prominent
in our society, is something that we need to
come to understand better. And with Baldwin– with
Baldwin’s materials, I should say, you get
close to understanding how he negotiated that
and resisted it, actually, through the entirety
of his life. But you don’t necessarily
like him better at the end of that process. – So let’s talk
about the archives as a place of investigation
and discovery. Robert Caro, who is
a great biographer, has talked about
turning every page. Advice that he received
about really going to the archives and
digging and going through those files and paper. And really trying to
find something relevant. Can you talk a little
bit about your experience of being in the
archives and things that you found that were
precious or surprising? – Yeah, I mean, gosh. So the people at the
Schomburg Library in New York have a joke that I
became a part of a staff when I was working on this book. Because what I would do is I’d
drop my kids off at school, drive up to New York, stay there
as long as I possibly could before I was like, OK,
if I don’t leave now, I’ll miss the end of the
after-school program. And day after day. And it was– you
know there’s just something really extraordinary
about the letters, the diaries, the notes to oneself. Even the calendars,
where you can see– for me, it was I can
see she went to dinner with this person on this day. You know, all of these. So there is
something about going through each page, where a life
emerges in that relationship with the pages. Now, that’s a preliminary step. And then you have to
figure out how to write it. Right? Which is another
task altogether. But I think actually the
most– and I don’t know if it’s as much
surprising as moving– was the letters. And in particular,
Hansberry’s letters with her husband, from whom
she split up quite early, although it was not known
publicly until really her death that they had divorced. Where you could
see the negotiation of that relationship,
which was clearly incredibly important to her. Was a very intimate
relationship. It was a friendship. And it was also a
friendship where it became clear through
reading the letters that he understood that part of
the reason their relationship couldn’t work was because she
was a woman who loved women. But they were so
tender with each other through that process. So there’s something
that’s just– and to find it in letter
form, particularly in this period in history where
we don’t write letters, right? That kind of reflection
was really quite beautiful. Yeah, that was my. And then letters from kids,
which are just precious. Like, you can write like
a dream, Miss Hansberry. [LAUGHTER] – Well, it’s dull. It’s dull. That’s the secret of it. Is that it takes a lot of time. Actually, the Schomburg, they
have the new reading room. So it’s actually comfy. – Yeah, it’s kind
of nice in there. Yeah. – And also, you just get
to know the archivist and the librarians quite well. I’ll tell you, the
thing is that there’s so much great stuff
that’s in this archive, that I often get sad if
I find a new great thing. Because it means that
I have to type it. So it’s sort of
like, oh, my god. When am I going to finish this? And also, the question
of what the story is going to be, the more
you’re in the archive, the more complicated the story has to be. My friends tell me that
it has become my practice. That my practice is
to go to this archive and sit there and
turn pieces of paper. The rule is that I have
to touch everything in order to actually
make sure that I’m not going to miss anything. I think it’s an
unbelievable privilege to have the materials of
the maestro in your hands. And to be reading his
unbelievable prose. It’s super humbling
to me in that this is a person who wrote every day. And who also wrote
grand narrative letters to his friends every day. And to type them, thank god. A lot of it is typed. And he also kept carbon copies. Wow, you know? So it’s an amazing
experience to go through it. There were moments that
were really quite disturbing to me, in that he also
kept all of his fan mail. And a lot of that was
extremely disturbing. So people were
revealing all sorts of secrets about themselves. A lot of young people
in a lot of pain writing him and saying
very, very powerful things about their lives
and their bodies and their families
and their sexuality and their race and
their class position, from all over the world. And also some pretty
creepy people writing show up in that archive as well. Saying some really
quite vulgar things. So you have to sort of
steel yourself for that. I think also that if you’re
there for a long time, you’re sort of emotional. You’ve been there
for three hours, and you’ve got some
poignant letter. It actually affects you more. And so you have to
steel yourself for that. But I think if you’re going
to be serious about it, you have to both allow it to
be something that affects you deeply emotionally,
to be present. But you also have to
be careful to not– you also have to
read it as text. And you also have to be careful
to not give up on the logic that you’re trying to make
out of the thing as well. Not to get so caught
up in this idea of, oh, I’m in the temple, that
somehow you forget that you’re actually doing a job. That you forget
that you’re trying to write to a larger public. That it’s not just about
a personal connection to these materials. – Wonderful. Now, I think that both of
you brought a document or two from the archives that
you might read from? Just to give us a sense of
the kinds of things you found. And would you like to do that? – I’ll do it. Now, I have to admit that the
one thing that I did was I left my glasses downstairs. So I can do this, but there’s
going to be some squinting. So bear with me. I brought two things. I’ll read you the thing that
will make you happy, first. [LAUGHTER] Then I’ll decide if I want
to read the sad thing. “Dear James Baldwin,
I’ve been wanting to write to you for
many, many years. And since I am very,
very much older than you, I’d better do so before
I cease to exist. I taught for 18 years at
Dewitt Clinton High School. And I believe you were in my
first or second-term English class. It is impossible to
remember names at my age. But I do recall vividly
incidents in the past and the individual involved. I remember a small
boy with big eyes and the circumstances which
impressed me so very much. I made it a practice
to send groups of boys to the blackboard to
write one paragraph on a particular subject and
then have a general discussion with the class as to how well
each boy expressed his thoughts and feelings in the paragraph. The subject I suggested to
the boys for the paragraph was to describe some aspect
of a scene of nature. You chose a winter
scene in the country. And the one phrase I never
forgot was ‘the houses in their little
white overcoats.’ It was a beautifully imaginative
expression from a little boy. I’m writing to you also
because my son Michael told me that he met you recently. I believe that it was at
the talk show to which you both had been invited. My sons, Michael and Robert,
were the Rosenberg children, born to Julius and
Ethel Rosenberg.” There’s more. “My wife, Anne, knew that at
some point in their lives, as well as I did, that
Michael and Robert as adults would shed their anonymity,
which was essential when they were young. And that they would expose
the frame-up of their parents, My wife Anne died on
September 13, 1973. I’m glad she lived long enough
to see Mike and Robbie fight to clear the names
of their parents. We were both so
proud of the boys. After 18 years of teaching I,
gave it up and devoted myself to writing, which
I have been doing even while I was teaching. My pen name is
Lewis Allan, and I’m enclosing critics’ comments
regarding some of my writing. Excuse the flagrant showing off. Best wishes, Abel Meeropol.” Now, if I may say, Abel
Meeropol and Lewis Allan was the librettist who–
or was the poet who wrote the poem “Strange Fruit.” Which I’m assuming you
guys know “Strange Fruit.” “Blood on the leaves, blood
at the root, black bodies swinging, southern breeze,
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” And this is James
Baldwin’s response to him. “My dear Mr.
Meeropol, your letter is completely unanswerable
because it drags up out of darkness and
confirms so much. What it confirms is something
I must always somewhere have believed without knowing
that about the connection between one human
life and another. How each of us, whether or
not we know it or can face it, is tied to the other. But the attempt to state
such a thing is banal. Better simply to
trust it and recognize it as unanswerable I don’t
remember what you remember. I remember only the blackboard
and the bottomless terror in which I lived in those days. But if I wrote the line
which you remember, then I must have trusted you. It never occurred to me, of
course, that one of my teachers wrote “Strange Fruit,” though
that also seems, in retrospect, unanswerably logical. Nor could it possibly
have occurred to me that one of my teachers
raised the Rosenberg children. It’s a perfectly senseless thing
to say, but I say it anyway. It makes me very proud. I hope you write to me again,
and I promise to answer. In the meantime, you can
do me a very great favor. My schedule was too tight
for me to see Michael again, and I never met Robert. Would you please reconfirm my
acceptance of this invitation to an inquest and reconfirm my
request that my name be used? I mean, they don’t have to use
it, but they can if they wish. In any case, I’m involved. No one is very
much older than me, so let’s attempt a meeting
before we cease to exist. My respect, James Baldwin.” I said it was going to be good. – It’s good. It’s good. I’m going to change
what I’m going to read to coincide with that. [LAUGHTER] So Lorraine Hansberry
and Robert Nemiroff were married on June 20 in 1953. And the night before, on
afternoon of Saturday, June 19, Lorraine
and Bobby picketed in front of the federal
courthouse in Chicago for the Rosenbergs. And Julius was executed
that night at 8:00. He died after one shock. Ethel was next. She was electrocuted
three times, but her heart was still beating. And then the executioner
administered two more shocks. And then smoke rose
above her head. And Lorraine wrote and responds. And this comes
from the archives. “We had come to a wedding. We had come to Chicago to lose
ourselves in the bridal song. And then there were those
moments when the news came, and we spoke of it
quietly to one another, our voices soft under
the discussion of where the cake would be placed and
when the photographers would arrive. Our voices above the
champagne glasses. Our eyes questioning
one another between the fresh, fragrant
flowers in their gleaming pots on the coffee tables
of the wedding house. Festive flowers. The Chicago heat in
the vast living rooms suddenly overpowering
the senses. Some grim terrible fire
within suddenly making it more awful, more stifling. The desire to fling the
glass into the flowers, to thrust one’s
arms into the air, and run out of the house
screaming at one’s countrymen to come down out
of the apartments, down from the houses, to
get up from the television sets, from the dinner tables. The bride sits a moment in
a corner, alone to herself. She thinks, and what shall
I say to my children? And how shall I explain
such a thing to them?” – Let me read a few
things, a couple of things from the archives as well. The experience of being in the
archives and researching Motley is a little different
in that there is a convention among
judges to not really leave a lot around that would
reveal the thought process. And also, she was
the reserved person. But there are some gems
that I found, including ones that suggest how
important a figure she was in the movement. And the expectations that
were placed on her as a result of her becoming an insider. Essentially, a representative
of a government that she had long
fought against when she was elected to office
in New York and when she was appointed a judge. And so one of the nifty
little notes that I found is from Pauli Murray. And she says– this is
after Motley is appointed to the bench– “Dear Connie, I cannot let this
day go by without saying bravo, well deserved,
hooray for our side. My prayers and best wishes for a
brilliant career on the bench.” And then she also
received a similar message from Martin Luther King,
Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth– “Our very warm wishes to you on
the occasion of your swearing in. We have been in many
battles together, and we wish to share a small
part of this additional stride towards freedom.” Coming from her friends
in the movement. And then there are
different kinds of letters. So this is from a white
woman, who writes– and this is after Motley’s been
sworn in as Manhattan Borough President– “Why should a negress be given
$35,000 a year in income? Don’t we have white Americans
who can do such jobs? White Americans are starving. And very soon, Negroes are the
masters of white Americans. Negroes even want
to be president of the United States.” And then this person includes
a picture from the paper. She says, “Here is a pure,
white, blonde American girl. And she’s working
as a truck driver. And you Negroes are being
paid $35,000 a year. No nation on earth,”
she concludes, “can live in peace with
two different colors, black and white.” And then there’s this note. “Dear Mrs. Motley, but you
are not a negress, you know. And I’m surprised that you’ve
not been challenged publicly on this. The native West Indian is of
the brown race, not the black. And there is quite
a difference.” And then she goes
on to say, “It may have been a handy
expedient to base an ambitious life on a hoax.” So there are lots of
letters of that flavor. Which really starts to
permit us to see how, even as we’re writing
about a person, writing about a
public, and about the African-American
and American Experience. I want us to move now
to talking about gender. So the session is called
Writing Black Lives. And yet gender is very
important to all of these lives. And so I wonder if you
can just take a minute to consider Hansberry and
Baldwin as gendered subjects. – Well, part of what has been
really fascinating to me about the not so much– well, both
what Baldwin wrote and what was written about him is– even while he was
being celebrated as one of the most
important– certainly the most important black
writers of his generation. And among the most
successful American writers of his generation. And often, there are a
billion celebrations of him in all sorts of media. He’s very consistently
referred to as being effeminate
and hysterical. Literally, those are
the phrases that are used about him all the time. And so it’s interesting. I’ve been trying to
get myself to not say, oh, those are codes for
saying that he’s a gay person. Because sometimes,
they just said he’s also homosexual or gay– or homosexual. But also that his stature– this is quite short
man, a small man– and his comportment were, in
some ways, quite out of sync with what people
thought of as being standard masculinity in the
United States and certainly standard black masculinity. The issue for me is how it is
that that sort of way in which we revere James
Baldwin, particularly his abilities as an orator,
are connected to the fact that we’re dealing
with somebody who is speaking to us in a way that
is not the stentorian Martin Luther King. It gets close to
Malcolm X’s heat, but not in exactly the same way. And certainly, audiences
that are looking at him are thinking– they’re looking
at a man who they are seeing as being a
person whom they would think of as an effeminate person. And talking about
it in ways that I think in our own
generations we would not. Like, we would be much more
reticent about saying, oh, this person who’s
in front of you is speaking in a way that is
not in the quote-unquote “norm.” The flip side about that is that
he is himself deeply concerned and often calls himself a sort
of sexually dubious person. And he is deeply concerned
with both his own gender presentation. And he’s deeply concerned in
his literature, every word that he writes, with
the ways in which we’re trapped both by
our racial thinking and also by our
thinking about gender. Now, some of that looks a
little conservative sometimes, frankly. It looks a little
old-fashioned sometimes. And so it’s difficult.
I taught, two weeks ago, James Baldwin’s No
Name in the Street. And my students did
not like James Baldwin. And so they thought, why is
this guy so like my grandpa’s conceptions of gender? They were more
eloquent than that. But the truth of the matter
is that it was a difficult– it was a wonderful,
wonderful, wonderful class, but a difficult,
difficult, difficult class because they don’t have
a proper understand– I don’t have a proper narrative
for how to figure that out. But it’s something that’s
written throughout his work. And then I’ll say one
last thing about it. And the other thing is that
he is also a hard figure to recuperate as a
gay icon as well, largely because he never
used the phrase gay and didn’t like it. And he thought
that much of the– what he would think
of as segregation of LGBTQ communities
was a bad idea. So the ways in which I think
that we are now turning him into a sort of cultural icon of
the left or progressive people, I think is done by forgetting
all of that bumpiness of James Baldwin in some ways. That his genius is
really deeply caught up with the ways in which he
was a very complicated man. And his literature was
wildly complicated. And most of his novels were
hundreds of pages long, minus the one that has now
been turned into a film, If Beale Street Could Talk. So that’s the thin one and
the sort of easier one for us to digest, I think. – Thank you. – Yeah, I mean, it’s
interesting because one of the things I think is
such a dramatic contrast is that while Hansberry
was not known publicly as queer or lesbian,
she embraced the identity of lesbian in
a way that Baldwin did not embrace the identity of gay,
but he was known as in public. So it’s an interesting contrast. She also strongly
identified as a feminist. She loved Simone de Beauvoir
and treated The Second Sex as a kind of Bible of sorts. And not in a doctrinal way. She struggled with the text. And so she had all
these margin comments. And she would argue
with de Beauvoir and use that as a way of
thinking about gender. And you can see, then,
in all of her work– and it’s actually
quite extraordinary. Because the criticism
doesn’t fully tap into the complexity
of the issues around gender that
she’s struggling with. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s
Window is all about gender. And most of the
criticism is about how it’s about sort of the
disenchantment of leftist men. The recurrent
theme is about what does it mean to be a
disappointment to your father, for both women and for a
gay man and for a black man, all in the same play. And you could go
through all of the work, and there’s a kind of
repetition of those themes. I also think overlaying
that– or maybe instead it’s underlying– but there’s a
complicated dynamic for her as a bourgeois black woman who
has some very particular gender expectations attached
to how she’s supposed to perform and be in the world. For example, her mother, when
she’d come and visit her, she would bring a dress
because Lorraine usually didn’t have a dress to put on, right? And she talked about
the expectation was to never betray the family
and never betray the race. And those kinds of– so in
some ways, that, I think, perhaps functioned as
a constraint upon her. Although she
scandalized her mother through the entirety
of her life, from who she supported
for president, becoming a communist, a socialist, living
a wild life in New York when she was young. So I think she thought a
great deal about gender. She understood it as
integral, not an additive, but integral to the struggles
around the liberation of black people. And that in particular,
black women’s position had to be understood
as a critical part. There’s a moment in the
infamous meeting with Robert F. Kennedy and Baldwin
and Hansberry, where she talks about a
photograph of a police officer with his foot on a
black woman’s neck. And that being the
crux of the problem. So she’s a feminist before it’s
a term that is even embraced and calls herself that. – Wonderful. Thank you so much for
that rich conversation. I want to invite the
audience to join us. I know that many of you
must have questions. We have a microphone in
the center aisle, there. And I would invite
you to please come up if you have a question for
Imani or Robert, and ask it. – I might have a question. – Oh, OK. It’s Skip Gates. – This is like– – Now my nerves. – I know. It’s like– right? It’s like everybody’s
dissertation advisor. – First off, I think
we should give it up for the marvelous panel. [APPLAUSE] And I’m very proud of
anybody on that stage who was once my student,
and my two colleagues. Robert, I wanted to
ask you, you know, I’m obsessed with James Baldwin. I was lucky enough
to have met him. Constance Baker Motley
was like my aunt. But I didn’t have the good
fortune of meeting Ms. Hansberry, of course. But when you were talking about
descriptions of James Baldwin, and I’ve watched a
lot of his interviews, with white interlocutors. He was very strident and very,
very quote-unquote “militant” in a way that I don’t think– it’s hard for me
to imagine someone seeing that stridency,
that militancy, and thinking an
effeminate Baldwin. And he became more so as
the movement progressed. But on the other hand, with
the rise of the Black Panthers, and particularly
Eldridge Cleaver, he’s then denigrated as being
effeminate, emasculated. You know, Eldridge Cleaver
wrote one of the nastiest essays about anybody I’ve ever read. And basically, he said
that James Baldwin was frustrated
because he couldn’t have a baby with a white man. I mean, that’s
really, really nasty. So there were two kinds
of perceptions of Baldwin. How are you– one, do
you agree with that? But two, how are you
dealing with that or thinking about
dealing with that? – This really is like
somebody– it’s like an exam. [LAUGHTER] OK, I’m good. I’m good. I studied. – Glad it’s you. – Well, one thing
I’ll say is that, as I think I may have told
her, a letter from you also shows up in the archive. – Only one? – A couple, a few. A couple, a few. It’s an embarrassing thing
that you’re trying to do. You’re trying to get
James Baldwin to send his papers to Yale. – That’s right. – I’m just putting it out there. It’s an interesting point. Because on the one, I think
that exactly what you’re saying is true. To add a little bit
of grist to that mill, that one of the things
that Baldwin says is that the first time he
meets the most militant speaker of his period,
Malcolm X, that he’s terrified about what Malcolm
X is thinking about him. Malcolm X is sitting
right in the front row. And then Malcolm X fully
embraces him and thinks of him as really a brother. At the same time, it
is certainly the case that when you look at secondary
responses to James Baldwin, that this idea of his being what
we would now think of as queer is pretty much
continually repeated. Including, by the way,
when Baldwin shows up on the cover of The New
York Times in 1963– excuse me. Time magazine in 1963– that there are two things
that are part of it. One is that they say
in the article itself that he’s hysterical,
that he tends to be effeminate, that he
smokes too much, that he drinks too much. A lot of the ways that we
talk about James Baldwin. And the dispatches that went
into making that article are in fact here at Harvard
in the Houghton Library. Houghton Library. And that they’re worse. The dispatch is called,
The Shadow Is a Nigger– Take Two. And this is an appreciation
of James Baldwin. So there’s two parts of it. There’s what James
Baldwin is projecting, and there is what people are
seeing from James Baldwin. I can answer it– I think I understand
it theoretically. I don’t know that I can say it
in a particularly pretty way. I think that part of what is
going on with James Baldwin is that he is being seen as
some type of New Negro, frankly. That he’s being seen
as a representative of black identity after the
hot part of the Civil Rights Movement is actually going. Now, if I can just say one
thing about the Time magazine article. That is in 1963 because we
all know that the Birmingham Campaign is happening in 1963. The Birmingham Campaign is
shocking to the country, not only because of the
bombing of the church and the death of
four girls, but also because it’s a time when deep
south Negroes are being seen as being militant in a way
that people below Maryland are not supposed to be militant. So part of what is going on
is that a new black person is existing in the world, period. And so it’s the way in which
the sentences look are, isn’t he so intelligent? Isn’t he so eloquent? Isn’t he an alcoholic? Look at how much he smokes. Look at how hysterical he is. Look at how effeminate he is. I think because they
can’t figure out what this person actually is. And he becomes a stand-in
for this real anxiety about what black people
can be in the United States and what black masculinity
can be in the United States. We know that he’s not
Martin Luther King. We know that he is
not a person who is in some type of
companionate marriage. But there is no
language to figure out how that person could be a
leader, how that person could actually be
representative of what’s happening in the United States. Because there’s no language for
what this new black population is going to be, period. – That’s great. – Thank you. Thank you. Whew. – Other questions? You passed. – Hi, my name is Kyra March. I’m a sophomore at the college. And my question was,
what mark would you like for your
respective biographies to leave on the current
generation of students and intellectuals? Especially because
a lot of students haven’t heard of the individuals
that you are writing about. And these figures are really
under-appreciated in today’s society. So what mark would you like
for your biographies to leave? And also, what kind of mark do
you believe your subjects would have wanted to leave? Especially with
today’s generation? – That’s a great question. Thank you for that question. I’m going to use your
question as a way to pick up on a theme that
hasn’t been fully teased out in this discussion. Robert mentioned this, this
sort of in the me moment, right? You get these
one-sentence tidbits and visual images of people. And they tend not to
go that deep, right? And one of the things
that is lost in that is actually relationships. So we heard about Constance
Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall, right? Or Hansberry and Baldwin. Or Hansberry and Dubois. These people who
are nurtured, who exist in a robust intellectual
and political community that nurtures them. I mean, even the archive of
the letters in some sense tells you something about
what it takes to have the kind of impact that these– and I think it’s
particularly important now because we tend to exist in
a kind of star marketplace, where so often, people are
individual lives, right? And seen as singular. But often, that singularity
emerges out of relationships. So I think that’s
one message that I hope comes forth, especially
given how intensely people are made to feel. Particularly people who are
both in artistic and political worlds, to see other
folks as competition as opposed to interlocutors, right? So I think that. And then there’s another
piece that I think all of them exemplify. The serious work, as Ellison
talked about it, the stern discipline, right? That in order to do
extraordinary work of whatever sort, that it requires a kind
of diligence and seriousness and deliberateness. And I think that that is what
emerges for you very clearly when you’re in these papers. And you see the multiple drafts. Or you see the minutia of
the struggles along the way. And I think that’s
important to communicate. Because again, particularly in
the kind of Instagram moment, it can feel as though
people just have stardust sprinkled on their
heads, and they emerge as superstars, as opposed
to really doing serious work. – That’s wonderful. And I want to make sure that
we get a number of questions, if that’s OK? So can we have another question? – Hi. I wrote my question down. And it’s kind of twofold. So the first question
is, do you believe there is a certain
responsibility of the biographer when exploring
the lives of these people who are very well-known? To go into the archives with
a certain set of ethics? To portray these people
in a certain way? And then number
two, as you study the works of these
literary icons, do you see anything
being reflected in your own literary
processes as you’re embarking on the journey of
telling their stories and writing their lives? – I thought the exam was over? Yeah, I do. Look, I think that
it’s important to go into every aspect of one’s life
bleeding with one’s ethics. That’s first. I think that, in the relation
to doing a biography, you have to– part of the reason that we
began this conversation saying that all of us have complicated
relationships to biography, but that one of the
ethics of a good writer, period, just a
good craftsperson, is that you want to
do the work of getting as close to the truth
as you can get to it. And you don’t want to have
it turn into something that is just going to be useful
or that’s going to sell well. You want it to sell
well, but you definitely want to take risks
with what you’re doing. So that means both in terms
of how you’re writing it, and also the truth that
you’re open to seeing and to expressing. In terms of whether or not
it changes you as a writer, I hope so. We’re talking about
James Baldwin. So I hope, I really hope, that
at the end of this process, people will think, good
god, Robert was good before, but man. That I really am hoping that. And I’m not even
kidding about it. I really do hope that. And so part of the
work aspect of it– I was going to say that
the thing that you learn is that life is about muddling. You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep going. And that one of the things that
any grand artist teaches you when you get close to his
or her or their materials is that they kept going, day
in and day out, no matter what. So I hope to express
that to everybody and to take that in for myself. And then finally, I’ll say just
in terms of the Baldwin stuff, when you’re reading
over and over and over again grand
prose like that, I both want to become a
better writer from it, but I also want to be careful
to have my own voice, right? To actually have my own style. And not to reproduce
the crazy James Baldwin punctuation and the too
many appositive statements. That it’s easy to get
into when you’re getting immersed like that. So you have to set up, figure
out some type of barriers to make sure that the book that
you’re writing is your book. It’s not attempting to
ventriloquize the subject. – Great, thank you. Another question? – Hi, I’m Carla Kaplan. And I want to thank you all
for the gorgeous conversation and the gorgeous work. And I want to ask a question
about the so-called denigration of biography. Because there was
something I sort of expected to hear from all three
of you that I didn’t hear. It’s always been my
experience that there’s a real difference culturally
in the approach to this genre. And that the pushback against
the denigration of the form really has come
from black studies. And that the pushback to
the denigration of biography as an unimportant
literary form came out of a cultural moment when
people in black studies said not just we need these
lives, but said in a way back to post-structuralism,
how dare you? How dare you tell
us it’s not time for the author, when we haven’t
even found our archives, yet? I became a biographer editing
Zora Neale Hurston’s letters because I was living in a world
in which the genre was exalted. I didn’t even know
it was denigrated. So I became a biographer
because I didn’t even know that I was like working
in an embarrassing form. Because I was living in a
world of black scholars, for whom there was no
denigration of this form. And I would say that’s
been true in queer studies. It’s been true in a lot
of feminist studies. And so I think I
expected all three of you to say denigrated
form, just admit it. And we didn’t get that. So do you feel any of that
difference in the approach to biography or not? – Well, you’ve said it for us. – I know. I know. – And did it really
well, so thank you. Thank you. And we have time for
one more question. – I’m lucky, I guess. My question is about
Constance Baker Motley. A hugely important person
for the Civil Rights Movement, and also a friend
of Thurgood Marshall. And I think a close colleague
of Thurgood Marshall. What happened with her
relationship to Marshall once she became closely related
to the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King? The grand Marshall
didn’t see always eye to eye with Martin Luther King. His idea of how to achieve
change was different from MLK’s. So what happened to
that relationship between Motley and Marshall? – So that’s a great question. I have to say, I’ve
written about that a bit in my book on the Civil
Rights Movement in Atlanta. We don’t have a lot of time. I will just say in a
nutshell, their relationship was enduring. And Marshall did accept that
the Civil Rights Movement needed to be represented. By the time Motley
was engaging in a lot of the work of representing
the students and Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall was off to
a different phase of his career. But they loved each other. And he respected her
so much as a lawyer. He said that she was
the best courtroom litigator he had ever seen. There are justices
on the Supreme Court who said the same thing about
her and Charles Hamilton Houston. And yet she is
relatively unknown, as compared to Marshall. And this just goes back
to some prior questions. So part of what I’m trying
to do with this work is get her her due. There are all kinds of– I have to say– bit players in the Civil Rights
Movement who have biographies. And Constance Baker
Motley certainly deserves a full biography. She was amazing. She was complicated,
including because of the way in which she
experienced and represented her gender. And so there’s so much
to learn from Motley and from all of these wonderful
African American figures. Thank you so much for
being with us today. [APPLAUSE]

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