On Seeing James Baldwin In 78

by Lamont Palmer

It was a warm spring night. A rare night when just me and my father were out together. But what made this night special was, it was the night I saw the great essayist and novelist James Baldwin in person.

I was a voracious reader as a teen and had just begun to experiment with writing poetry, when I ran across the work of Baldwin. I was sixteen years old. Enthralled with my literary discovery, I spent hours each night in my bedroom drinking in his tough and beautiful and combative words, seeing the world through his eyes and through his essays. I loved the way he wrote. It was like a course in English as I read him, scribbling down words that I did not know the meanings of so I could look them up later. There were times when I was reading Baldwin, sleepy eyed under my nightlamp, when instead I should’ve been doing my school homework. But the words of the great author challenged me like no homework ever could. Though I had never dealt with, in my young life, anything remotely similar to what Baldwin dealt with in his life, his writings touched me and resonated with me in some deep way that I, at 16, did not fully understand. He quickly became my favorite writer.

One day in the newspaper there was an announcement that he was coming to town to give a lecture at the University of Maryland, just thirty minutes from where I lived with my parents. My excitement knew no end. I asked my father to take me and he said he would. We arrived at the auditorium about forty-five minutes before Baldwin was to speak and easily secured seats on the front row, just a few feet from the podium. This is one time my father's penchant for being very early and nagging anyone who happened to be traveling with him to “hurry” up paid off. The auditorium slowly began to fill.

When Baldwin walked in to great applause and a standing ovation, I could feel my heart flutter with a subdued but tremulous kind of palpitation. It was strange and exciting and almost numbing to see him standing there in the flesh. I had only seen him in a few still photographs. In my favorite picture of him, he was gazing downward, wearing the sad, pensive face of a writer. Now here he was in front of me. In person, he was a surprisingly diminutive man, thin and dark with large eyes and heavy lids. He was a small man with a large presence. His voice was clear and he had a very cutting and flamboyant manner that was thrilling to watch. I had read accounts where said he had an inferiority complex growing up because he felt he was physically unattractive. This went through my mind as I watched him and served to reinforce my connection with him because neither did I consider myself to be handsome, certainly not in the classical sense. But the man I saw before me, the man whose words moved me like the wind moves the leaves, was beautiful. The one physical attribute of his that stood out for me were his hands and fingers. They were thin and expressive and he used them like a mime would, used them to punctuate his comments and thoughts. His fingers danced in the air that night with every provocative remark. Applause and laughter came in bursts as the audience responded approvingly to his talk.

I don’t recall the exact topic of his lecture now, though I’m certain it was vintage Baldwin. But what he said was not as important or as moving, for me at least, as what the essence of the man created in me. He seemed to be the physical embodiment of his prose, sharp, honest and colorful. He made me think that perhaps I could be a writer too and that I had something in my mind and heart that was more powerful and swaying than what the world saw of me on the outside. No one really knew my name either. And I recognized at that moment I’d never read Baldwin in quite the same way again.

After the lecture, people flooded the stage to shake his hand, including me. Because my father and I had come early and gotten a front row seat, I was one of the first persons to approach him. He reached down from the stage, and I shook that slender, expressive hand. I had some writing paper in my back pocket and I gave it to him to sign. He scribbled his name on it. To my deepest dismay, I cannot find that slip of paper with Baldwin's signature on it today. I was 16. Posterity meant little to me then and I did not make a good enough effort to hold on to that paper that bore his signature. Naturally, I can never get that again. But what I cannot unwisely misplace, what I will always possess, is the memory of him and how I felt when I saw him and heard his voice and, how I felt then and now about my father setting aside some time to take me to see the man who helped raise the consciousness of a country through his literature and his life. Thank you, daddy. Thank you, James.

On Seeing James Baldwin In 78 by Lamont Palmer

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