I was going through an old writing notebook I filled in Taos last year, when I ran across some notes I had jotted down on Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin. It’s good to re-read writing practice notebooks. Sometimes there are helpful quotes, raw images, inspirational lines to be plucked from the pages of wild mind.
We read Another Country and Giovanni’s Room for the Intensive and I’d checked out a bunch of library books on Baldwin. One was called A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973), published by J.B. Lippincott.
I remember thinking the generational differences between Baldwin and Giovanni would add a richness to their dialogue. It was true. At the time, Baldwin was 49 and Giovanni was 30.
On February 28th, 2007, Nikki Giovanni spoke On Poetry and Truth in the Ted Mann Theater at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. The talk ran on PBS the first week of April and Liz taped it for me. But I didn’t get a chance to watch it until after the closing at the Virginia Tech Convocation. I was riveted to the screen.
She started out talking about how her dog, her mom, her sister, Rosa Parks, and her aunt had all died unexpectedly within a year period in 2005; she started out talking about grief and loss. Then she went on to discuss in great detail, the children’s book she wrote about Rosa Parks, titled Rosa.
She considered the book carefully and wrote with historical precision, considering every detail. That’s the hallmark of a good writer. I could see that writing the book had helped transform her grief.
I wish I would have had a chance to see Giovanni and Baldwin dialogue. They are two writers who have a startling honesty and unwavering passion for what they believe in. Speaking strictly for myself, I am completely inspired by both of them. After hearing an archived Baldwin interview, or listening to Giovanni speak, I want to run out and write my next book.
In Taos last August, I shared some of the Baldwin and Giovanni dialogue with the writers in the Intensive. Some found it inspiring. I thought it might be good to capture here the parts on Truth and Love. You can also still buy the book.
It seems like famous writers and artists used to publically dialogue with each other more regularly than they do today. Maybe it’s my imagination. But I’m hungry to hear gifted writers speak about their work and have frank conversations with one another about the issues of the day.
And while they are at it, I’d like to give them a go at world peace or global warming. It wouldn’t be the first time creative intellectuals debated the truth – and came to a place of compromise and love.
A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973)
excerpt, p. 78 – p. 82 – On Truth
Baldwin: That’s right.
Giovanni: But Chester could say, Okay, I will pursue truth in this way, which looks a little better, so that you can make a movie out of it if you want to and it’ll still be true. And then takes it right to Blind Man with a Pistol.
Baldwin: But, sweetheart, it’s the same thing we were doing on the plantation when they thought we were singing “Steal Away to Jesus” and I was telling you it’s time to split.
Giovanni: But why do we –
Baldwin: Steal away, steal away –
Giovanni: Why do we, as black writers, seem to be so hung up on the truth?
Baldwin: Because the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. The act of writing is the intention of it; the root of its liberation. Look, this is why no tyrant in history was able to read but every single one of them burned the books. That is why no one yet really believes there is such a thing as a black writer. A black writer is still a freak, a dancing doll. We don’t yet exist in the imagination of this century, and we cannot afford to play games; there’s too much at stake.
A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973)
excerpt, p. 92 – p. 95 – On Love
Giovanni: People really feel the need to feel better than somebody, don’t they?
Baldwin: I don’t know why, but they do. Being in competition with somebody is something I never understood. In my own life, I’ve been in competition with me.
Giovanni: Which is enough.
Baldwin: Enough? It’s overwhelming. Enough?
Giovanni: Just by fooling yourself –
Baldwin: That’ll keep you busy, and it’s very good for the figure.
Giovanni: It makes you happy, you know.
Baldwin: Well, it means that in any case you can walk into a room and talk to somebody, look them in the eye. And if I love you, I can say it. I’ve only got one life and I’m going to live my life, you know, in the sight of God and all his children.
Giovanni: Maybe it’s parochial, narrow-minded, bullheaded, but it takes up so much energy just to keep yourself happy.
Baldwin: It isn’t even a question of keeping yourself happy. It’s a question of keeping yourself in some kind of clear relationship, more or less, to the force which feeds you. Some days you’re happy, some days you ain’t. But somehow we have to deal with that on the simplest level. Bear in mind that this person facing you is a person like you. They’re going to go home and do whatever they do just like you. They’re as alone as you are.
Giovanni: Because that becomes a responsibility, doesn’t it?
Baldwin: Well, it’s called love, you know.
Giovanni: We agree. Love is a tremendous responsibility.
Baldwin: It’s the only one to take, there isn’t any other.
Giovanni: I agree and it’s awful; we’re supposed to be arguing.
Baldwin: And we blew this gig.
Giovanni: Goofed again. I think love is an answer but you have to be logical about it, you know.
Baldwin: You say logical or rational and I say clear, but it becomes the same thing. You can’t be romantic about it.
Giovanni: No, you can’t be romantic about love.
Baldwin: That’s all, you know.
Giovanni: I think we’re in agreement.
Baldwin: You think we are?
Baldwin: You asked the loaded question.
Giovanni: I asked the loaded question?
Baldwin: You did. You did ask the loaded question. But it’s all right, because we’re home free.
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, May 14th, 2007
-related to post: Nikki Giovanni – Hope at V-Tech