36. Meeting James Baldwin

2.16.2010

By Felice Picano

In 1979, Delacorte Books -- publisher of best-selling authors like James Clavell and Stephen King and literary authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Yates, threw a party to celebrate its authors' new titles, my own included.

Of them all, I most wanted to meet James Baldwin, but even for another author, getting near Baldwin wasn't easy. He seemed circled, virtually protected from outsiders.
I pushed through, introduced myself. 'In college, we all talked about Another Country," I said. 'How it depicted relationships between blacks and whites, gays and straights, was totally real, as were those moments of unbridgeable gaps.'

'Not unbridgeable,' Baldwin insisted and drew me aside to sit. We talked for 10 minutes of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the bus rides down South, the integration movement and its leaders.

By 1987, I'd made a literary impression myself. Even so, I was surprised to be invited to speak at the University of Massachusetts. It was the midst of the Reagan era; in an essay I'd decried a national media distracted from national problems by the president's sound bites.

I lodged in the campus hotel, next door to the president of Brazil. After a group dinner, a professor said, 'Someone would like to see you. He wasn't well enough to come.'
It was the first I'd heard that Baldwin was in the United States -- and ill. Friends had pulled strings to bring him back, to get him a house, a stipend, and medical care for his cancer.

We met in a dimmed parlor. He was surrounded by pillows, wrapped in blankets. Although never a handsome man, Baldwin had once been striking nonetheless, master of his face, of words, and of the telling gesture. Now he looked exhausted. I held his skin-and-bones hand. He had heard my talk, he said, but what more could be done? I replied that we had an obligation to put things right. Baldwin despaired, however. His last book was unpublished in English. No one cared anymore. Maybe gays still had energy, focus, anger: Baldwin really didn't know anymore. He would return to France to die.

I was stunned and too distressed to tell anyone we'd met. I've never spoken of it until now. But I recalled our conversation the night Obama was elected: See Jimmy? Maybe it's up to us to struggle and prepare the ground. Maybe change comes when it is ready?

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