The Unsparing Confessions of an Outsider: James Baldwin & Istanbul

All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique.

All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story;

 to vomit the anguish up.

—James Baldwin

Courtesy of Fatih Yürür

When my lit professor asked: “Who has heard of Yaşar Kemal?” – the room immediately filled up with raised hands. And “Engin Cezzar?” – she asked over the excited buzz in the room. As an exchange student in Turkey, those names didn’t evoke any emotions in me. Nor did the next name: James Baldwin. Upon mentioning Baldwin’s name, the class fell silent. We didn’t know who he was.

His name would remain with us over the next two weeks as we studied the novel Giovanni’s Room. The story centres on David—an American in France. Separated from his girlfriend Hella, who has gone to Spain to find herself, he meets an Italian, Giovanni. The two men begin an affair and they spend their time together in a room that Giovanni rents from a maid. When Hella returns, David decides to marry her and submit himself to mid-century American norms and expectations. In turn, the already penniless Giovanni succumbs to poverty and desperation, [spoiler alert] until he commits a murder and is then sentenced to death.

The novel offers an internal portrait of David’s sexual awakening, and the frustrations that prevent him from achieving a stable romantic and sexual relationship with another man. It’s in David’s homosexuality—his identity and internal struggle as an ‘outsider’—that Baldwin empathised with. As an African-American living in Paris and as a gay man himself, Baldwin knew what it was like to be the ‘other.’ Read More

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Thoughts on the Harlem Renaissance

We are drawn to the [Harlem] Renaissance because of the hope for black uplift and interracial empathy that is embodied and because there is a certain element of romanticism associated with the era’s creativity, its seemingly larger than life heroes and heroines, and its most brilliantly lit terrain; Harlem, USA.

– Clement Alexander Price

It’s the 1920s, and the Thirteenth Amendment that was signed to abolish slavery was signed in 1865.  Under slavery it was deemed illegal for African-Americans to read and write and go to school; but in the 1920s, and despite the short time between slavery’s end and this time period, African-Americans had already made important and impressive strides in the literary world, strides that would influence the American literary scene.

The Harlem Renaissance is often seen as a literary movement, but in actual fact it was an art movement that included theatre, dance and music, among others. I’m no expert on the movement as a whole, having focused my time mainly on the literature, where my passion lies. Nevertheless, I know that even in literature I have barely scratched the surface, and there is so much more for me to discover from that era; I’ve yet to read writers and poets like Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, or Dorothy West; yet so many of my favorites, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Robert Hayden, James Weldon Johnson, come from the Harlem Renaissance, and the more I read their work, the more I realize just how important this era was. Read More

Review: Incognegro – A Graphic Mystery

It was the summer of 1919. Just after the First World War, white supremacists, fueled by generations of hatred, began targeting returning African American GIs for violence. Meanwhile, more African Americans flooded into northern cities looking for job opportunities and an escape from the oppression of the American South. They, too, were met with violence in cities such as Chicago and New York. It was the Red summer, when blood flowed from battered skulls and from the trees like blossoms of the “Strange Fruit” of the old jazz standard. From the shadows emerges a hero, the Incognegro.

This graphic novel deals with the fictional story of Zane Pinchback, an African American man whose light skin tone allows him to pass as a white man. This trait, presented almost as a superpower in Incognegro, has helped him slip into the shadows and report on lynchings in the South. Suddenly, the work – always dangerous – becomes personal as his brother has been placed in jail for the murder of a white woman, and the sentence will be carried out by the angry lynch mob that sits outside the jailhouse day and night. Read More

The Black Voice on Being a Public Text

I had the opportunity to attend a reading done by Roxanne Gay for her new memoir, Hunger. She began with this explanation of the book’s origin: “When you are fat, especially when you are fat and black, your body becomes a public text.” It resonated with me, as I was steeped in my own otherness at all times, held up to a harsh light and appraised from every angle through a loupe. The black writer knows that our otherness defines us, and that otherness creates our public text persona. The way we might talk about a new film with friends and strangers alike, the way we might have a roundtable discussion about a classic work of literature or a salient opinion piece, the black body must survive in that space. We are personified in all forms of media, and yet our own selves remain a mystery. It is tenuous place between the realm of being unknown and being constantly seen; a driving force in much of African American literature is the liminality of this running commentary. I would like to examine two poetry texts that really dig into this notion, but I would argue many texts talk about the running commentary of the white imagination placed upon African Americans, works as diverse as Kevin Young’s essay “Blacker than Thou,” the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and even the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The anxieties and pressure of being a public text are found within these texts, but by focusing on Citizen by Claudia Rankine and There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, I hope to illuminate how the African American writer uses their work to reconstruct life underneath this microscope. Read More