• James Baldwin Conference Inspires Students


At the end of Spring Break, while many Suffolk students were catching up on their sleep at home or basking in the tropical sun, three English majors stayed on campus to participate in an academic conference dedicated to the life and works of the twentieth-century African-American author James Baldwin (1924-1987).  The conference, James Baldwin: In His Time / In Our Time, organized and hosted by Professor Quentin Miller (English), drew scholars from across the nation, and even across the ocean, from London and Finland. 

The conference opened with the keynote speech on Thursday evening.  Baldwin’s close friend, personal secretary, and authorized biographer David Leeming spoke to a crowd of eighty about Baldwin’s entire life, using the image of a house as a metaphor for Baldwin’s relationship with his troubled nation.  Through a mixture of literary analysis and personal reflections, Leeming captivated the audience and set a tone of professional, personal, and intellectual respect that lasted throughout the conference.   Senior Eric Lapre, who is currently completing an independent study on Baldwin, writes, “The keynote speech by David Leeming is what I will remember most.  Hearing his anecdotes and hearing him refer to Baldwin as ‘Jimmy’ sort of brought the author into the room.  We weren't talking about a distant stranger.”   Eric also moderated one of the academic panels, charming and impressing conference attendees with his professionalism and intelligence.

The second day of the conference was dedicated largely to academic panels.  In most cases, two panels consisting of three papers each would run concurrently.  An early paper discussed the meaning of “majority” in public addresses by Baldwin and President Barack Obama.  Other panels on the first day focused on topics such as Baldwin and Civil Rights, Baldwin and music, and Baldwin’s overlooked later novels.  At 6:00 on the second day, conference participants as well as local residents and Suffolk faculty members filed into C. Walsh Theatre for a dramatic performance of Baldwin’s life:  “Down From the Mountaintop,” a one-man show by Calvin Levels.  Junior Sarim Proeung identifies this event as a memorable point of the conference; she says, “Calvin Levels’s performance was informative, emotional, and humorous; it was an all-in-one performance.  It was an overview of Baldwin’s life, his important works, and it gave me a better understanding of the themes we discussed in class.”  Sarim is currently enrolled in African American Literature (English 357) along with Eric Lapre and Chris Gagne, who also attended the majority of the conference and helped to make sure that it ran smoothly.

The conference wrapped up on the third day with another strong set of panels.  Two panels focused on two controversial and important works that can be seen as turning points in Baldwin’s career: his 1962 novel Another Country and his 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie.  The closing plenary discussion included Quentin Miller, Bill Schwartz (who organized the 2007 Baldwin conference in London), Rosa Bobia (who chairs the International James Baldwin Society), and Magdalena Zaborowska, the author of a recent book on Baldwin’s exile in Turkey that was prominently featured in The New Yorker.  The plenary speakers summarized this year’s conference and set the table for the next Baldwin conference, though a location and date have not yet been set.  Following the plenary discussion, poet Afaa Michael Weaver gave a moving reading to conclude the conference, interspersing observations from Baldwin’s essays with his own original work as a way of illustrating how Baldwin’s legacy lives on.

Literary critics have described Baldwin as the most successful African American writer of his time, and even of all time.  His prominence or fame are of less importance, though, than the substantial body of complex writing he left behind for readers, students, and scholars to interpret.  Literary critics are clearly engaged with Baldwin’s works more deeply than ever before, and it was fortunate that Suffolk was the site of a key moment in this engagement.  The students who attended will undoubtedly remember how the conference expanded their understanding of an author they encountered in the classroom, and the scholars who attended will look back on this March in Boston as a watershed moment in a rich, ongoing conversation about this author’s significance.  Baldwin once wrote, “All art is a kind of confession,” and later added, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”  Over two decades after his death, we’re still listening, and paying profound attention to his lifelong confession, grateful for his willingness to disturb the peace as he did.


Actor Calvin Levels as James Baldwin

Panelist group discussion

photos by UnityFirst.com

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