Poetry News

Hilton Als's Homage to James Baldwin

By Harriet Staff
James Baldwin

At the New Yorker, Hilton Als speaks with Coralie Kraft about God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin: his newest curatorial achievement, which recently opened at David Zwirner in Manhattan. In Kraft's words, the show is "a moving tribute to Baldwin and an attempt to give shape to a man who, in Als’s eyes, is celebrated as a writer-prophet of racial injustice but too often overlooked as an artist and a human being." Delve into her introduction, and the beginning of their conversation, from there: 

The show features more than sixty works by artists working in various media, arranged throughout four large rooms. Als commissioned original pieces from several renowned contemporary artists, including the South African painter Marlene Dumas, who contributed a series of fourteen portraits depicting Baldwin and the great artists he was connected to—Richard Avedon, Langston Hughes, and Tennessee Williams, among others. Other artists whose works are featured in the exhibition include James Welling, Kara Walker, Diane Arbus, and Beauford Delaney. One remarkable set of Avedon’s images, contained in a contact sheet, depicts Baldwin at home with his family, looking joyful and loose. A rare tape of Baldwin singing the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” echoes through the galleries. At David Zwirner earlier this week, Als spoke with me about what he hoped to accomplish with this collective portrait. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

You’ve written about your feeling that something was taken away from Baldwin during his lifetime—that, in a way, he was “colonized.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

I think that fame can do terrible things to people. It means that you’re not living in the quiet and solitude that, as a writer, you need in order to develop. I remember William Styron said that there was a weird schizoid element that he saw happening in Baldwin, between the writer who was living for his work and being isolated and then the person who felt that he had to be a spokesperson. I think that Baldwin martyred himself for lots of people, and it meant that his writing became polemical. The less internal life that he was allowed, the more polemical he became.

And so I think, Why not snatch him back from that? If you start listening to him sing, or you see something he said about his mother, or you see them together in Avedon’s photographs, it does something else to your mind, as opposed to “Oh, yes, the civil-rights activist James Baldwin.” It goes back to an idea, which is very important to me, about giving Baldwin back his body, his spirit and his corporeal self. Now we have him singing, and we have him filling space, too.

Learn more at the New Yorker.

Originally Published: January 17th, 2019