NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 1 - Winter 2018 - Page 76

2010 . Lalibela , Ethiopia . — Starry Church Giyorgis
jd : I’m telling you. She says it like it is, like it isn’t, like it could be, like it might be, like you wish it wasn’t, like you wished it could’ve been. She gives you irony. But this idea that she’s singing one line that could say something different to six different people or 600 different people in the audience, that’s what she’s doing there. A kind of elasticity and utterance, a kind of twisted complexity and grace, and, of course, all with her hand draped off her wrist there on stage, looking like she’s half asleep doing it. This is a voice and a person whose presence is so unmatched. You know, we are so far from being able to benefit and travel with her like we should. But James Baldwin, early in his life as a writer, he was on record, on the page, following along closely with her voice. Clearly, he picked up on that sophistication and brilliance ep : And what’s sunken underwater! jd : When it comes down to it. ep : I don’t know exactly how to make sense of that situation but none of us do. And that’s what makes love the vexing and dangerous place that it is. These are permanent and life-sustaining, and at times life-threatening relationships we have with people. They’re non-elective relationships; they are things we didn’t exactly choose. They’re terms we certainly didn’t choose. But in some way too, through encountering people in that intensity again, you accrue an authority in yourself that can put you on your way, when you need to be. And that’s part of Billie Holiday’s immense gifts, as an interpreter of popular song, is that she comes to the tradition of Gershwin, of Harold Arlen, of Irving Berlin, but with incredible authority of feeling. Just absolutely astounding, which shatters the pretense if I take your meaning, and also James Baldwin’s. Then love is not some ideal state in which life becomes roses and sunshine, it’s actually a very dangerous freedom that we all risk in order to find and discover our lives with each other. jd : ep : That’s right. And love is a venue in which people become very dangerous to each other. And love is also a venue where we have some responsibility to that danger. And so, Billie Holiday could come to those American standards or write her own lyrics with great authority because she had authority in experience. She’d been through it, and, really in the end, didn’t have anything to hide about it. jd : Didn’t have anything to hide. ep : Because having these things that one can’t accept in oneself, which is the same thing as having things you can’t tell other people, that’s a very precarious position to be in. And one doesn’t always keep track of the web of silence that those things then create. Those things show up jammed in your mouth in ways that won’t allow you to speak — in the strangest places. It’s so gratifying to hear you bring that up, because earlier in the conversation you mentioned Hannah Arendt, and in her essay concluding “Origins of Totalitarianism” she describes how before totalitarian state can seize control over a society, it first has to have a society that is emotionally alienated from itself to such a degree that individual human beings no longer feel capable of expressing what their inner lives actually consist of. And then at that stage is when that hyper-nationalist, cowboys vs Indians, natives vs settlers kind of rhetoric can really take hold of a society, because everybody is so alienated from each other at the emotional level, they are scared to talk about what’s really happening to them. jd : ep : They are totally terrified. It’s a numbness. In fact, it’s a mob. And we have many mobs about us presently. And here we are. Which is why it is so urgent and necessary, and I implore our listeners today to explore this work. Again, Who Can Afford to Improvise?’: James Baldwin and Black Music, The Lyric and the Listeners. Ed Pavlić joining us this afternoon and, of course, with equal urgency, time to pick up James Baldwin once again, who is being heralded in recent months and recent years but in a very curious way. There was something that struck me as really strange and that had to do with Toni Morrison, the brilliant Toni Morrison, making the odd comparison of Coates to James Baldwin. I didn’t get that. What was your take on that? I understand that we want James Baldwin, but come on. Coates, Baldwin?? That’s more than a stretch. jd : ep : Yeeeah… No offense to Mr. Coates, I’m just saying, where, what is that about? jd : ep : I think Ta’Nehisi Coates is a great writer, a brilliant writer, a great thinker. His first book, The Beautiful Struggle, I think is a great book. Really fine contemporary autobiographical writing and the next book, Between the World and Me, also quite good. But James Baldwin as an artist, is in a wholly different register and space than that. Not to take anything away from Ta’Nehisi Coates. But obviously, he would agree with all this. I don’t know. I think maybe it was Morrison’s profound desire to see some of the space left open, filled. And I do think Coates’ writing does fill an element of that space somewhere. jd : But really it’s the hunger for James Baldwin. ep : Yeah, well there is a hunger for James Baldwin, and that is a very healthy thing. And that hasn’t always been the case. That wasn’t always the case during his career, and it wasn’t always the case after his death. But as we said yesterday, as I was saying, it’s my personal opinion and my aesthetic artistic judgment that James Baldwin really is one of the permanent American voices, and one of the permanent global voices. jd : Absolutely, long after many, many civilizations have had their rise and fall, James Baldwin will still continue to rise. ep : If human culture can sustain itself such that the arts are still around. The species will be gone, if the arts are gone. And none of that is out of the question, of course, but to the extent that we can sustain ourselves as a thinking, and speaking species, James Baldwin’s work will move with us. And you with it. To any extent you can. 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