(I’ve told this story a lot, to all kinds of people who might appreciate it. Yet somehow here at VONA — surrounded by wonderful writers of color day in and day out — I had completely forgotten about this story until we were practically ready to take our tired, laughed-out selves home from dinner Wednesday night.
I’m talking about the “when I met James Baldwin” story. I’ve mentioned it in other blog posts at least twice, but I’ve never told the whole thing. Until now. The ladies at dinner insisted that I write it down, and what better place to do that than here?)
When I was in Paris, I worked on an independent study project on the Civil Rights Movement (yes, I would have had an easier time with my research had I studied this subject in the States … I think my choice of project topic was an odd manifestation of my growing homesickness). I was hours and hours in the American Library every day, my table piled with books: the Black Panthers, Gordon Parks’ photos, Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael. My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (Yes, really, you can look it up!)
I was sitting in the library one afternoon, and a guy came and handed me a flyer. “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d probably be interested in this.” The flyer said James Baldwin was going to be speaking in a few weeks somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”
And that would be because I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was.
My mother and sister came to visit, and I was all wrapped up in getting to see them and I set other things aside. We were standing on a subway platform, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”
My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.” (Remember, still young and dumb.)
A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?” So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him ….
… and started talking and talking and talking about myself! Because, you must understand, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about. But on and on I went. In the bar, on the metro,walking to the hall where he was going to speak.
He was unbelievably nice to me, asking me questions, offering advice, just basically putting up with my incredible stupidity in the gentlest way.
And then I took a seat in the back of the auditorium (maybe thinking I’d duck out after the talk started?!) and heard him speak. And, with every passing moment, realized just who this “funny-looking little man” was, just how brilliant he was, just how uncommonly stupid I was. I wanted to sink through the floor.
When it was over, I figured I’d stay in the back until they all left and then slink home and beat my head against the wall. But he caught my eye and waved me down to the front. He said a bunch of folks were going out for coffee and asked if I’d like to join them. So I sat and listened, and he was funny and charming and clearly enjoying himself.
As the group broke up, he said he was sorry we didn’t get to talk. He handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s my address in the south. Write to me.” Handed me his address in St. Paul de Vence and asked me to write him.
And of course I never wrote. Because by then I knew who he was and I couldn’t let myself off the hook for blathering on and on about my painfully ridiculous little self the whole time we did talk.
Fast forward almost two years. I’m back in the states, and a friend gets tickets to hear Baldwin read and invites me to join her. I take my Go Tell It on the Mountain so I can slip it to him for a quick signature and scurry out of his esteemed presence.
He reads, he talks, he’s wonderful, the audience is crazy for him, there’s a huge line of people wanting books signed. Behind me is a woman who’s very impatient, she needs to get up to the table because she has some meaningful interaction to be had with The Man, she “needs to have words with James,” as she says more than once.
I get up to the table and hand him my book. He lifts his pen, looks up … and remembers me! “Don’t I know you?” he asks. I mumble some kind of affirmative response and he smiles. “We met in Paris!” he says. The woman behind me nearly passes out. Baldwin asks how I am, smiles again, signs my book.