Wednesday, February 24, 2021

James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner"

James Baldwin's 1954 play The Amen Corner was slated to be presented by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC, just before the pandemic shut the city down. I attended some of the rehearsal and later attended a discussion under the auspices of the production's director. Here is my report of this experience.

2 February 2020

Well, I went to the open rehearsal today, the first rehearsal on the stage where the play will be performed. Never got through the play, as two scenes were rehearsed over and over for three hours. However, seeing the characters perform is superior to reading the actual play. But also the disconnect between all that carrying on in church and the actual conflicts and behavior of the church people is even more palpable. The first scene is singing and carrying on and preaching. The second scene sets up all the conflicts in the play, and what's really going on behind all that piety.

My concern is that when all is done, the impact of all that getting happy will obscure Baldwin's message of the limited mentality and the cramped lives that feed that religious fanaticism.

This was, I think, Baldwin's first major enterprise after the publication of his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which also has an ambiguous ending, and has a couple characters interested in something other than praising Jesus 24-7. Whereas this play has David taking his musical talent out of the church into the world of music developing in the 'sinful' outside world.

17 February 2020:

Yesterday I attended an interview with the director and a scholar of James Baldwin's play The Amen Corner at the Shakespeare Theatre [in Washington DC]. I came in with some skepticism, but I was pleased at the insightful commentary of the speakers (two Black women interviewed by a white guy), which also gave me a more positive view of the play as well as an understanding of just how innovative it was in 1954, though it has been comparatively neglected in Baldwin's oeuvre.

I started off the Q & A with my excellent intervention. The director was thrilled by my observations and questions. I inquired: given your understanding of the complexity of the play, have you found that the audiences and critics of 1954 and today appreciate the ambiguous position that Baldwin presents (comparable to that of his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which I also characterized)? Were you worried that the audience might be so distracted by the feelgood singing and dancing and carrying on that they would overlook Baldwin's negative attitude towards the Black church?

To my surprise, the director responded with a resounding yes. She said that when she first started rehearsing, she was afraid the story would turn into a musical, so she had to tone it down so that the complexity of Baldwin's play would not be obscured. The Baldwin scholar added information about the first performance of the play at Howard University in 1954, as well as other contextualizing information.

The director emphasized that the play would be just as controversial today for Black audiences exposing the dirty laundry in the church. In response to a question about problems with white reviewers (viz. a current controversy), the director said that since a negative review can destroy a play and the author's career, lazy and insensitive reviewers present a serious problem, but the very nature of theater is to reach out to everybody, so it's a risk she believes in taking.

I didn't get to talk with the interviewees afterward, but a Black guy came up to me and said he really liked what I had to say.

I am the best.

22 February 2020:

I've just re-read James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, and I like it much better this time around. Now I'm inclined to think Baldwin takes his criticism of the Black church another step or two beyond his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. It would not be long before he would reveal his separation from Christianity, though not his religious sensibility, in his essays.

Also, the more I think about his struggle with his upbringing, the more I think I understand part of the basis for his attacks on Richard Wright, who never showed the slightest sympathy for Black religion. Baldwin before the end of his life admitted he was wrong about Wright. Here is a conclusion of a talk he gave which I transcribed from a tape:

"Richard went to Paris in 1946, when I was 22, he was 38. Now, it took me a long time; I had to get to be much older to realize something. I didn't realize it that day at all. I was not born in Mississippi; I was born in New York. And I did not leave Mississippi to go to Chicago. And endure all that. I was much too young to realize what I was looking at really. But, that's a journey. To go from Mississippi to Chicago to New York to Paris in 38 years is amazing. You might as well have walked all that distance, it's almost that remarkable."

— James Baldwin on Richard Wright, Yale University, 2 November 1983

Saturday, February 20, 2021

D. T. Suzuki revisited

I had forgotten that I had something to say about D. T. Suzuki in a previous post: 

Gods, UFOs, Zen, epistemology, autonomy

Last year I retraced my steps back to 1977, when I read Zen Buddhism & Psychoanalysis, by D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard De Martino (New York: Harper, 1960). I concluded somewhere along the line that Fromm was naive about Suzuki and other religious/spiritual figures, but this time I was appalled by Suzuki, so I wrote this:

Revisiting D. T. Suzuki: Selective reading, memory, & embarrassment

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Andrew S. Curran on Diderot


Andrew S. Curran, author of the acclaimed Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely (Other Press, 2019), was the guest speaker in a virtual meeting of the Greater Boston Humanists on 22 November 2020 titled 'Enlightenment, Atheism, and Race'. 

From today's perspective Diderot can be seen as more progressive than Voltaire and Rousseau. The concept of the 'Radical Enlightenment' was discussed, as well as the origins and causes of modern racism. This was an excellent presentation with exceptionally intelligent audience participation.

Curran is also the author of The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in an Era of Enlightenment (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

Monday, August 10, 2020

Richard Wright vs Sun Ra

This is only a hypothetical confrontation to have taken place in the 1950s, or posthumously in the '60s. I recently came across an untitled poem that I wrote the same day I wrote this:

UFO (Haiku for Richard Wright)

In a rootless cosmopolitan way, Wright also belongs to Afrofuturism, maybe not so much Afro-....
"I have no religion in the formal sense of the word .... I have no race except that which is forced upon me. I have no country except that to which I'm obliged to belong. I have no traditions. I'm free. I have only the future."
-- Richard Wright, Pagan Spain

My haiku was prompted by a conversation about flying saucers buried in Wright's novel The Outsider. Both Wright and Sun Ra were hot to escape the confines of the Jim Crow South, taking different routes. Both are admirable for different reasons. Sun Ra was a musical genius and quite a charismatic character, but having listened to his blather in person, I could only take so much. So this is what I must have been thinking when I wrote the following, to which I must now give a title in addition to some slight editing and rearrangement:

Richard Wright to Sun Ra From the Tomb

Shaking hands with the ether,
Knowing Natchez was a pile of shit
Spewn over the globe.

Faith in articulate waves
broadcast into the galaxy . . .
and not your crank etymologies
concocted in the Magic City.

Bluesman in Paris
did not settle down,
Hallucinating into the future
And abruptly cut down.

(4 August 2011)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Philip Roth: 'The Conversion of the Jews'

Philip Roth is a famous name in Jewish American literature, but I never read him or much of any of the Jewish American literature of his era, which would seem to have much to do with the tribulations of assimilation into the American mainstream. I read a story by him, from 1959, for the first time a week ago. And this is the second, for an online class on Jewish culture two days from now:

The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth (1959)

This is really brilliant, with multiple ironies. By all means read it, and then read my analysis:

1. Ozzie the child is a child, not having the understanding, perspective, illusions, and inhibitions of the adult.

2. Ozzie doesn't really care whether or not Jesus is God, but he poses the philosophical question about the possibility of virgin birth.

3. Ozzie's reasoning mirrors the absurdity of all religious justification, but freed of understanding or interest in any superstitious tradition, pursues an abstract question.

4. Sticking to his guns, he's willing to suffer and rebel against persecution as a heretic, but flees to the rooftop.

5. On the roof, Ozzie discovers he has a peculiar power, first over the firement, then over the rabbi, then his mother, then the entire crowd.

6. Ozzie's friend Itzie yells for him to jump, and whips up the crowd. They love the spectacle, and they don't particularly care about Ozzie.

7. Ozzie discovers the power of martyrdom.

8. The crowd wants a martyr for its own delectation, not for any principle.

9. The guardians of Jewish religious orthodoxy--the rabbi and mom--don't want a martyr. This is because they don't want Ozzie to die. But this is also a commentary on and condemnation of Christianity.

10. So as not to become a martyr, Ozzie commands the rabbi and mom to bow down and acknowledge that God can do anything, he induces them to kneel and to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the son of God.

11. This is a paradoxical commentary on how Christianity makes converts, by coercion and spectacle. And also, how the Jews can be forced to kowtow to Christianity in order to survive, although in this case, it's because (for the rabbi and mom) they want Ozzie to survive, that is they want the prospective martyr not to be a martyr, and so they humiliate themselves for his sake. So, in this ironic situation, Judaism is subordinated to Christianity, but for the sake of saving a Jew.

12. And nobody should ever be slapped for their thoughts about God.

13. Ergo, Roth condemns both Judaism and Christianity and all religious authority. But paradoxically, while Christianity is posited as a viable theological option, Christianity receives the bulk of the condemnation for the glorification of martyrdom.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from Underground (10): Richard Wright & Ralph Ellison


‘Are the underground men in the works of Wright and Ellison given the same psychological dimensions as those Dostoevsky achieves for his underground figure? The answer is “No,” because the latter two writers borrowed only those characteristics from the pioneer that would serve their purposes. Thus, while Dostoevsky’s undergrounder makes a strong case against the dictates of reason and the laws of nature, the underground men of Wright and Ellison welcome both in their attempt to find meaning in their existence.’

SOURCE: Hayes, Floyd W., III. “The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel The Outsider: A Philosopical Investigation,” Black Renaissance Noire, vol. 13, issue 1, Spring/Summer 2013, pp. 162-171. (Revision of paper prepared for the International Centennial Conference, Celebrating 100 Years of Richard Wright, The American University of Paris, Paris, France, June 19-21, 2008.)
See also:

Lucy Parsons: The Religion of Humanity

“The Christian civilization of Chicago ... permits the heart's blood of your children to be quaffed in the wine cups of the labor robbers. . . . Socialism is the 100-cents-on-the-dollar religion. (Cheers) . . . . We have heard enough about a paradise behind the moon. We want something now. [....] We are tired of hearing about the golden streets of the hereafter. What we want is good paved and drained streets in this world. [....] I want my immortality in this world, and if there is any in the next world we can look after that when we get there.”



       -- Lucy Parsons, “The Religion of Humanity,”
           speech delivered at A. R. Parsons Assembly No. 1
           of the Knights of Labor, Waverly Hall, January 23, 1889

SOURCE: Ashbaugh, Carolyn. Lucy Parsons: American Revolutionary (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1976) p. 170. For more on this speech and meeting see pp. 169-171.