Archive for May 14th, 2007

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

Giovanni: Exactly. And I’m talking about Chester’s [Himes] pursuit of truth. Because Richard Wright died, or was murdered, before he quit pursuing the 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?

Giovanni: Yeah.

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

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By Nat Worley

The Spire, 1962 yearbook of Greenwich Country Day School.
Image of John Webster, Former Headmaster of Greenwich Country Day School. Source: The Spire, 1962 yearbook of Greenwich Country Day School.

Greenwich Country Day School. Old Church Road, Greenwich, Connecticut. My mother taught second grade at Greenwich Country Day for three years before I was born in 1965. In those years, John Webster was the headmaster, and the title meant something. Students, faculty, and parents alike revered him. By the time he retired, he had been the headmaster at Country Day for more than 30 years.

Many private schools have this history of being led by a single, towering figure for decades. The school becomes a living extension of his vision—for a community, a pedagogy, and a life philosophy. Mr. Webster believed in responsibility, effort, virtue. He hired teachers who illustrated those ideals with their own lives and character.

When I was in my 30s, my mother showed me the letter that Mr. Webster wrote her when I was born. He congratulated her on my birth and promised her that I had a place waiting at the school when I turned four. In an important way, that letter writes my first destiny.

The Spire, 1962 yearbook of Greenwich Country Day SchoolI went to Greenwich Country Day in 1969 as a four year-old preschooler, and I graduated from its Upper School at the end of ninth grade in 1980. The years there were the happiest of my life, for many reasons, but chief among them was the sense that I belonged utterly among my classmates, in those classrooms, on those fields. How odd to see that the great man himself, who retired in my second year there, had pre-ordained at my birth that I should belong.

The school itself occupied two former country estates, one of which contained all the school buildings, and the other of which housed faculty apartments. The academic buildings in that era were white clapboard, rambling wooden structures made to look like large colonial family homes. Their wood floors were varnished to high gloss and chair rails lined some of the walls. Administrative offices were large and just comfortable enough not to be imposing, suggesting large private libraries for great men and women.

Towering pines, green meadows and playing fields surrounded the buildings. We walked down a long hill and over a covered footbridge to arrive at the athletic fields and hockey rink. I can hear exactly the clatter of cleats as 30 boys hustled over the wood boards toward practice below. On game days, we marched in formation as a team, two by two, our cadenced cleats clattering on the bridge in unison, martial and precise. We marched in silence. Our uniforms were orange and black, with tigers growling on the front of them.

Male teachers wore coats and ties, and female teachers wore dresses or skirts with starched blouses or sweaters. Boys wore blazers and ties even while playing football at recess. We were idyllically and comically imprinted with Connecticut prep style and ideals.

What I remember of that time in my life was the almost entire lack of irony and cynicism. Teachers taught that we were preparing for lives as business and political leaders and that we had a moral duty to learn service to others.

Issues of class, money, and social rejection must have loomed large for some of the parents and for some of the teachers, though we were treated as insiders, as the elect. I was unaware of class for many years.

What I remember instead are friends whom I knew and loved for the most unguarded dozen years of my life. I remember teachers and what mattered to them. I remember practical jokes and confident, laughing girls, and the feeling that even with all the money required to build the school and pay the tuitions, principles towered above us and counted more than anything else in life.

To this day, I credit that phase of my life with all of my loves: books (especially poetry), debate, singing, team sports, public speaking, writing, and wearing a tie to work. Those teachers—including my mother, who stopped teaching there when I was born—trained us to take ourselves seriously and to treat our fellow human beings with the respect we wanted for ourselves.

Nat works in marketing for a technology and services company in Rhode Island. He has been a student of Natalie Goldberg since 2003 and learned about writing practice from her book, Writing Down the Bones. In addition to writing essays and poems, Nat writes the blog www.cloud9000.com/nat and is a principal of Cloud 9000, an organization devoted to the discovery and development of happiness, well being, and personal growth.


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