David Bowie Book Club #2: James Baldwin

Baldwin and his nephew.

The February read for the David Bowie Book Club was James Baldwin’s¬†The Fire Next Time, an essay about America’s racial divide which is sadly still all too relevant today. I’d read¬†Giovanni’s Room¬†and¬†Go Tell It on the Mountain,¬†but only fragments of his great body of essays, both personal and political, which are incontrovertibly fused in his work:

One writes out of one thing only –¬†one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from his experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.

The Fire Next Time¬†is a slim volume comprising an essay Down at the Cross and¬†a letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation from slavery which is only a few pages long and acts as a sort of prelude to the other essay.

It’s an amazing and unforgettable polemical read. I was instantly captivated by the blazing passion and fury of the language and the argument. It is heart-breakingly honest and would inspire anyone with ‘fire in the belly’ at the injustice of race relations. In the letter to the nephew, things are spelled out directly and still feel applicable to so many discriminated and vulnerable people within present-day society (the often unconscious white middle class privilege we hear in the media):

You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence; you were expected to make peace with mediocrity… I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’

The essay proper is a memoir of the summer when Baldwin turned fourteen and experienced a kind of religious fervour. Why religion? Baldwin is remarkably clear-eyed about using religion as a tool¬† (or as he calls it ‘a gimmick’) to help him move beyond his background:

I was icily determined … never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me… I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was and limit me that way… Every Negro boy… realizes that he … must find, with speed, a “thing”, a gimmick to lift him out, to start him on his way… And it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.

However, it is not all plain sailing. The young boy is clearly caught up in the excitement of church, the music and drama of it, but at the same time he is puzzled at the apparent indifference of a white God to the plight of black people. He sees examples of anything but Faith, Hope and Charity, the principles he believed the Christian world was based on. He finds it absurd that people claim to love God only because they are afraid of going to Hell. He sees the paradox of church ministers becoming rich while their parishioners continue to scrub floors and put their hard-earned dimes into the collection plate. He decides there is no genuine love in the Christian church.

The boy grows up and encounters the Nation of Islam movement and Malcolm X, with their doctrine of a black God. Although he feels the anger of the black movement is justified, he finds himself equally alienated by their hatred of all things white. ‘I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than colour?’ This leads to a very powerful examination of what equality really means.

People are not terribly anxious to be equal… but they love the idea of being superior…. I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now – in order to support the moral contradictions and the spiritual aridity of my life – expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist. It is a bargain I refuse. The only thing white people have that black people need, or should want, is power – and no one holds power forever.

Baldwin sets out the arguments so eloquently that it feels wrong to try and paraphrase them. It is such a brief and powerful piece that I would urge you to read it yourselves. It was previously not that easy to find, though, except in volumes of collected essays by Baldwin, but in 2017 a beautiful new edition was launched and won an award (see cover above). I will just close with a beautiful call to something one might call reconciliation:

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve out identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Baldwin’s house in St Paul de Vence, France. For more information about the state of the house now and attempts to save it, see this article.

1963 – we are now in 2018, 55 years later. Why is it still so difficult to accept that allowing someone to develop to their full capacity does not take away from any of your own potential? Why do we still have the hunter/gatherers’ mentality of scarce food resources, that if we give away some of our food we will starve? Even when what is often asked of us is not as basic as sharing food, but something like sharing the limelight? Call me naive, but I still think we should unite to save the planet and its weakest souls (animals, children, whatever) rather than fight amongst ourselves.

 

Friday Fun: Houses of Famous Writer All Over the World

This week I am wandering around Europe with famous writers, while next week I plan to go a little further afield.

Haworth Parsonage, home of the Bronte sisters. From Visit Britain website.
Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy. From World Nomad Journals.
Camus’ modest house in Lourmarin, bought with the proceeds of his Nobel Prize. From Pinterest.
Caragiale museum in Romania. From skytrip.ro
Romanian national poet Eminescu’s birthplace in Ipotesti. From Wikipedia.
Victor Hugo’s house in exile in Guernsey. From Visit Guernsey.
Philip Pullman’s garden shed, from Authors’ Houses.
Schiller’s house in Weimar, from deutschland.yakohl.com
Goethe’s garden shed in Weimar, from planetware.com

Friday (Thursday) Fun: Writers’ Retreats

Some of them belong(ed) to writers, some of them are being used for writing workshops and retreats. All of them will predispose you to a bookish reverie…

Edith Wharton's house The Mount in Lenox, MA, organises 2-3 week residencies for women writers of 'demonstrated accomplishment'.
Edith Wharton’s house The Mount in Lenox, MA, organises 2-3 week residencies for women writers of ‘demonstrated accomplishment’.
Court Green in Devon, the house of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Picture courtesy of P.H. Davies. Hughes' widow still lives there.
Court Green in Devon, the house of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Picture courtesy of P.H. Davies. Hughes’ widow still lives there.
Lumb Bank is another house formerly owned by Ted Hughes, and is currenty an Arvon Writers' Centre.
Lumb Bank is another house formerly owned by Ted Hughes, and is currently an Arvon Writers’ Centre. Picture by Alison Morton.
Kerouac's cottage in the Orlando neighbourhood where he wrote The Dharma Bums. 4 three-month residencies a year are available to writers of 'any stripe or age, living anywhere in the world.
Kerouac’s cottage in the Orlando neighbourhood where he wrote The Dharma Bums. 4 three-month residencies a year are available to writers of ‘any stripe or age, living anywhere in the world.
Marguerite Yourcenar's villa not far from Lille and the Belgian border offers 1-2 month residencies to European writers.
Marguerite Yourcenar’s villa not far from Lille and the Belgian border offers 1-2 month residencies to European writers.
Barnhill on the Scottish island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984, is still open to writers seeking solitude and lack of Wifi.
Barnhill on the Scottish island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984, is still open to writers seeking solitude and lack of Wifi.
Gladstone Library in North Wales operates a bed and breakfast, as well as a Writers in Residence Programme.
Gladstone Library in North Wales operates a bed and breakfast, as well as a Writers in Residence Programme.

Finally, the Michalski Foundation in Switzerland has  been busy building different versions of treehouses by renowned Swiss architects. You can apply for a writing residency programme in one of those treehouses, very close to where I used to live (talk about bad timing for leaving the area!). Here are more details on how to apply (deadline is Sept. 30th, hence a Thursday rather than Friday Fun posting, to give you time to apply).

Cabane Mangeat-Walhen, Fondation Jan Michalski.
Cabane Mangeat-Walhen, Fondation Jan Michalski.

Friday Fun: Literary Villas in France

It’s been roughly a century since the French riviera and countryside were discovered by foreign writers. Here are a few of their villas and chateaux for your envious gazes…

Chateau de Charry, patrimoines. midipyrennes.fr
Chateau de Charry, patrimoines. midipyrennes.fr

After his separation from Angelica Bell, Bunny Garnett (former lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant) spent the rest of his days at this chateau in the south-west of France.

La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.
La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.

Vanessa and her family spent every summer in Cassis in the south of France. Virginia Woolf also visited them there.

Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.
Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.

Somerset Maugham lived in this spectacular villa near Cap Ferrat for over thirty years, until his death in 1965. It was remodelled and renovated for him by American architect Barry Dierks. Everyone who was anyone visited Maugham here: writers such as T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming but also political figures, including Winston Churchill. It is now a boutique hotel.

Vila Picolette, from curbed.com
Vila Picolette, from curbed.com

The villa where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ was up for sale in 2012. Although the Fitzgeralds moved in and out of several villas on the Mediterranean, the “price upon request” (read: an arm, a leg, and your first born) property in Cap d’Antibes boasts those delightful unnecessaries found in 19th-century homes: staff accommodations, pool terraces, a sauna, portholes, and “immaculate” gardens.

belles-rives-antibes

Above, the kind of hotel Rosemary might have stopped at on the French Riviera in the first part of Tender Is the Night.

And finally, this little treasure below. I could not establish any literary connections for it, but it’s in Provence near Avignon, it looks fabulous and it’s available for rent. When I have my next $9000 or so to throw away spend, I will stay a night or two there, invite all of you writer friends over and then it will have us as its literary connection!

Chateau Ventoux, from luxuryretreats.com
Chateau Ventoux, from luxuryretreats.com