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Celebrating James Baldwin

April 25, 2008 at 8:22 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

Last Saturday concluded a weeklong symposium on the life and works of James Baldwin, a multitalented writer who wrote on race, sexuality, and American culture. Because Baldwin is considered so prolific, Carleton organized an array of diverse events to pay respects to his work. The symposium included talks, movie screenings, book readings, and a performance of one of his plays.

The event was organized by history professor Harry Williams who holds the Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professorship of History and the Humanities. David and Marian Bryn-Jones both worked at Carleton for many years in the first half of the twentieth century. Their endowment to the school included the professorship, whose goal is to “encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue on campus to promote teaching and learning in the humanities.”

And the Baldwin symposium was definitely cross-disciplinary. Baldwin himself was involved in many areas of culture, as a poet, essayist, writer, playwright, and philosopher. He is most famous today for Notes on a Native Son (1955) and his Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953). The symposium combined various disciplines including Music, History, English, Religion, and Theater as it reflected on the full spectrum of Baldwin’s career.

At the opening reception to the symposium on April 13, Charlotte and Charles Morse and their daughter, Helen Olson, reminisced on what it was like to go to one of Baldwin’s many social gatherings in Paris in the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Byron Olney, the brother of Richard Olney, the artist who painted the portraits of Baldwin and Mary Painter (now on display in the libe!), also spoke.

Professor Williams explained that reading Baldwin’s books was a formative experience for him in his youth. “He gave me a way to think about the world,” he said.

Baldwin enjoyed the peak of his popularity in the 50s and 60s, but the symposium affirmed his continuing relevance today--not solely as one of our nation's greatest black authors, but as one of America's best writers.