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Moments from the Black Past


Fascinating discussion of a 1973 dinner between James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, and Henry Louis Gates. The latter was just starting out. He was commissioned to talk to these two legends of 20th century Black life for Time, which of course then spiked the story.

This modest gathering in the south of France in 1973 proves there is life after America, that Black Americans are not required to stick it out, that there are aspects of Black private life the media will never acknowledge, in the US or abroad, life that we must seek out and understand if we want to love our mutual heroes beyond parasitic worship. This exchange moves us to seek out more like it, more places where Black people made connections and came together for private conversation: Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Amiri and Malcolm X, Sun Ra and Malcolm X, Abbey Lincoln and Miriam Makeba, the almost collaboration between Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. There are many meetings on and off the record that, were we made aware of them, would change our concept of what’s possible. This extends to large festivals born of the spirit of these private meetings: FESTAC in 1977, the Pan-African Congresses, Wattstax, Black Woodstock. Black social life is more diverse and organized and warm and daring than the white media would ever like us to believe.

Jimmy Baldwin and Josephine Baker, embracing at the Welcome Table, inspiring Jimmy’s play by that name, is our key into a world we make possible by sharing. We are told Black life is chaotic, that we don’t organize and plan enough to transcend white bureaucracy, and yet socially, privately, we are a network of tongues cut out, shared, and returned as song and plan. This would be the last physical meeting between Jimmy and Josephine—she died on stage two years later. Time would like to be the arbiter of our understanding of the relationship between this meeting and the world, would be glad to disappear the residue of this glorious summer evening in France; but it turns out that magazines cannot control who we bring to our last Black suppers or how we nourish one another off the record.

To be Black in America is to have contemplated fleeing this country, but here we’re reminded that we also escape its bleak expectations every time we come together for dinner, every time we demand the privacy of our own memories, and every time—like Jimmy and Josephine and Henry—we imbue an assignment or interview with so much love we lose track of personae and become one another’s truths.

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