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Carleton celebrates author James Baldwin with two-week-long symposium

From April 10 to April 29, Carleton College organized and hosted “Contemplating James Baldwin: Language, Courage, and Tenderness,” a symposium that focused on the life and works of James Baldwin, one of the preeminent African-American Writers of the twentieth century. Sponsored by the Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professorship and the Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching, the event was organized by Carleton history professor Harry Wills, the David and Marian Adams Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor of History and the Humanities.

The event featured various presenters from throughout the country who discussed different aspects of Baldwin’s writings and life including Dr. Lawrie Balfour, a political science professor from the University of Virginia, Dr. Joshua Miller, an English professor at the University of Michigan and Professor Williams. In addition, Tony Award nominee Calvin Levels performed his solo play, “James Baldwin: Down From the Mountaintop” on April 19 in Concert Hall. The play, the highlight of the event, centered on the life of Baldwin and was well attended by the Northfield community.

In addition, on April 15 and 16, the James Baldwin Film festival, sponsored in part by the Student Union Movie Organization (SUMO), featured films about Baldwin in Olin Hall. Films included “Witness James Baldwin,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “James Baldwin: The Prince of the Ticket,” and “Witness James Baldwin.” Sam Benshoof ’09, Director of SUMO, said that sponsoring an event like the Baldwin Film Festival was important not only for SUMO, but also for the Carleton community.

“When I was first approached about this,” Benshoof said, “I really wanted to be a part of it. It’s really not often that SUMO gets to be a part of such an important event on campus. It was important to me that we help to make this as successful as possible.”

An all-day colloquium on April 19 brought together the presenters of the event and faculty Carleton College, Macalester College and St. Olaf College to discuss different approaches to teaching Baldwin and relating his works in various disciplines. Williams also led various reading/discussion groups for faculty and staff throughout the course of the symposium including an analysis of Baldwin’s approach to racial images, education and manhood.

In addition to faculty involvement from Carleton and its neighboring institutions, student participation was also a central part of the symposium, including a student reading group sponsored by the Gender and Sexuality Center. Additionally, an exhibit at the Laurence McKinley Gould Library, “The Writer’s Job: James Baldwin Speaking Out,” has been on display since March 31 and depicts the life and writings of Baldwin through various photographs and other artwork including two full portraits by Richard Olney.

While parts of the symposium weren’t that necessarily well attended by Carleton students due to other events such as Ebony occurring during conflicting times, many Norhtfield community members came to many of the events in addition to a large amount of faulty members from diverse disciplines.

“Rarely is there an opportunity for a student at Carleton to participate in an event as significant as the Baldwin symposium,” said Brandon Walker ’09, one of the student organizers of the symposium. “Having the opportunity to be involved in an event focused on the life of an African-American male who was so important in an American history is a once in a lifetime event.”

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