Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Peaceful Assembly and the Poets' Corner

James Baldwin

I went to New York again early in the month to participate in the ceremony whereby James Baldwin was inducted into the Poets’ Corner at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. 

This was my first New York neighborhood (I enrolled in graduate school at Columbia in 1965), and the Cathedral, like all the environs thereabouts, is a familiar reference point to me.  Sunday mornings in those years, I used to take walks in Harlem, at a time when things were quiet.  There’s a poem about those walks in my book A Call in the Midst of the Crowd. Harlem in 1965 was quite different from what it is now.  It’s easy for me to imagine James Baldwin as a boy venturing into Morningside Park, looking up at the vast unfinished cathedral overlooking it, and wondering what went on there. Knowing what I do about him, I’m certain that he came to have a look inside, though I can’t quite imagine what he must have thought about it.

On the other hand I take it for granted that he sympathized with the students at Columbia University who in May of 1968 went on strike and occupied Columbia’s Low Library to protest university plans to annex part of Morningside Park and build a gym there.  It was an egregious, imperial move to take away part of a park that residents in west Harlem used every day.  CU said it would open the gym to non-university residents, but we will never know if the plan would have been put into effect because the project was abandoned in the face of student and community opposition.  Unfortunately, this came only after Grayson Kirk, CU’s president, had ordered the buildings cleared of occupying students, a raid performed by the NYPD with no restraint at all.  During clearance, large numbers of students were hit repeatedly with nightsticks or truncheons, including my friend the poet David Shapiro. It happened that I was on my Fulbright year in Paris when this occurred, so I wasn’t part of it, except as an appalled observer from across the Atlantic.  Instead, I had the May uprisings in Paris in that same spring to live through.  Details about both events can be found in the long narrative poem Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984), which retells my life in the years 1965 to 1969.                                                                                                                                                                                                    

David Shapiro in Kirk's Office, May 1968

To return to Baldwin and the Cathedral: he was as an adult awarded the Cathedral’s Centennial Medal in 1974, and in December of 1987, his funeral was held there.  Induction into the Poets’ Corner would seem to be the next logical step. Marilyn Nelson was appointed the Cathedral’s Poet in Residence in 2011 and earlier this year asked me to serve a five-year term as one of the electors for the Poets’ Corner, which I was glad to do.  Baldwin was chosen as this year’s new “poet,” though poetry is only a minor part of his oeuvre as a writer. The Corner includes novelists (indeed, our most famous) as well as poets. A brief inscription from the inducted writer is always placed under the name, and the electors settled on this for Baldwin: “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”  Then plans were made for an induction and a celebration on November 6th and 7th.

The event on Sunday the 6th was a liturgical service, with the Cathedral choir singing arrangements of the spiritual songs, “A Balm in Gilead,” “Deep River,” and “Steal Away to Jesus.”  There were prayers, a psalm, and congregational hymns.  The poet Jericho Brown read, I read (the conclusion of his essay “Notes of a Native Son), and David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, spoke about the author, whom he knew personally, in general terms. The inductee’s great-nephew Trevor Baldwin spoke feelingly about his famous relative, then we had a brief homily-eulogy from the Dean of the Cathedral, James Kowalski, as well as words of greeting from Marilyn. At the end we processed to the rear of the church to the side chapel where the Corner is, and Marilyn unveiled the inscribed stone. Flashbulbs went off, and then the choir sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and it was over.  Elizabeth Macklin, whom I’d invited to the ceremony, came up, and I introduced her to Marilyn.  Quincy Troupe was there and introduced himself, but I reminded him we’d met at the Writing Division at Columbia many years ago. I spoke briefly to Cynthia Zarin and then to Jaime Manrique, but each had to rush off to other events. Then someone introduced me to Patricia Spears Jones, whom I’d only known through Facebook before. Ceremony completed, we walked over to the Cathedral House where there was a buffet dinner for all participants.

The celebration the following night was smaller, unassisted by the choir and unliturgical.  Dean Kowalksi participated but only briefly.  Readers/speakers were Sharan Strange, Patricia Smith, Thomas Sayers Ellis, myself, Quincy Troupe, and Dr. James Cone, a professor of religion. Also, Marilyn, who read Baldwin texts to the accompaniment of a vibraphone.  We weren’t seated in the choir and everything was conducted with less formality than on the previous evening.  At rthe conclusion, an amplified recording of Baldwin singing the hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was played in the transept and a professional singer chimed in with her responsive asides as his voice resonated through the building. A haunting moment.  Afterwards, I spoke to Patricia Smith, whom I hadn’t met face to face before, only online, but we had a good-humored “live” conversation. My friend and host in New York Walter Brown came with me for the buffet meal at Cathedral House afterward.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the new rooms for the Met’s collection of Islamic art and found amazingly beautiful examples of art in ceramic, metal, weaving, painting, wood and stone sculpture, glass, and calligraphy.  Though I can’t read Arabic, the wonderful varieties of Arabic script fascinate me, and I have a special liking for Kufic. It’s worth noting that the proscription against representation was often ignored in the history of Islamic art, so that we have the beautiful renderings of people and animals in the small Mughal paintings.  Someof the rugs, too, go beyond abstract geometry and give us stylized animal figures.  Islam is a flexible tradition, historically incorporating a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and that remains true today.
While I was in town I visited Zuccotti Square again, glad to see that Occupy Wall Street was in good shape.  This was only a few days before participants were banned from staying there overnight, and since then I’ve been distressed that police efforts to restrict or disperse demonstrations in New York and elsewhere have become violent.  Teargas, pepper spray, and unwarranted use of what they now call “batons.”   All of this has become epidemic, and it must stop.  I wonder if authorities realize that any person who is gassed or beaten by police becomes radicalized for life.  Also, any demonstrator who witnesses brutality like this.  During the past couple of weeks, riot police have themselves in effect rioted, particularly in Oakland at on the campus of UC Davis.  A smear campaign sponsored by conservative interests has tried to depict the demonstrators as lazy, spoiled youth, espousing unsanitary conditions, drugs, and free love.  The reality is very different, but when mud is slung, some of it always sticks, influencing he conduct of law enforcement officers.  Many policemen have working class backgrounds, and class anger can be stirred up among them if the hot-button libels have been previously planted in their minds.  (But how can any police officer, no matter how angry, feel justified pepper-spraying the face of an 84-year old woman, as happened ten days ago?) I saw these same developments back in the 1960s. It’s all depressingly familiar. Dr. King’s civil rights movement was libeled and suffered repressive action from misguided law enforcement, as well as vigilante attacks.  He persisted and eventually lost his life. There is also the horrifying instance of the Kent State killings, carried out, incredibly enough, by the National Guardsmen.  To engage in peaceful assembly is a risky undertaking, not to be undertaken lightly in a country where violence is taken for granted.  But as Baldwin reminded us, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.” And not artists alone, but all people concerned with social justice in a climate where it has been forced to take a back seat to the national addiction to wealth, no matter the cost of that pursuit to social cohesiveness, fair dealing, and responsible freedom.


  1. >>> any person who is gassed or beaten by police becomes radicalized for life.

    Truer words never spoken.