When you enter City of Asylum at Alphabet City in Pittsburgh’s Northside, your journey begins with three paths to choose from. If you turn left to enter Casellula, where you’ll take a journey of eating local and internationally sourced cheese, drinking wine, and figuring out what the Pig’s Ass Sandwich is. If you turn right, your journey will include exploring stacks of books filled with political asylum-seeking authors from around the world.
While I’ve gone left a few times since Casellula’s opening, I had yet to go straight into City of Asylum. The focal point of the newly renovated, ever-alluring place, in between the restaurant and the bookstore, is a community space where many events happen almost nightly.
On Tuesday night, February 7, I attended James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket as part of the Sembène Film Festival. While James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer from Harlem, born in the 1920s, this film explored how Baldwin’s experiences of living in other countries contributed to his understanding of his American identity and his work in the Civil Rights Movement.
James Baldwin is arguably as captivating to listen to as to read:
While this film advertisement focuses on Baldwin’s upbringing and American roots, the film usefully explored his time in Paris, Switzerland, and Turkey.
At pivotal times in his life, Baldwin felt it was imperative to leave the United States. Baldwin first travelled to Paris in 1948. During his time in Paris, he came to understand the tense relations between white Parisians and Algerians– he related to the Algerians because they were oppressed in similar ways to blacks in the United States. After four years, he finished his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain during a winter stay in Loèche-les-Bains, Switzerland. He also wrote his novel about homosexuality, Giovanni’s Room during this time abroad.
He came back to the United States in 1957 at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, focussing his energy on interviewing southern blacks and writing about the need for violence against blacks to end. In 1961, he travelled and stayed in Istanbul, Turkey, where he wrote his novel Another Country.
After his friends Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were assassinated, he returned to France. Maya Angelou and his other friends in the film reflected on Baldwin’s lack of bitterness that propelled him forward. He wasn’t bitter– he was enraged at the injustices that American institutions inflicted on black Americans. Baldwin channeled his energy into writing texts that explored racial injustices and the attempts at black and white Americans to unite– this artistic and political choice, unfortunately, led to harsh reviews. Readers didn’t want to engage with “political” texts. However, Baldwin emphasized, everything he does has a message and is political because he is at the intersection of many oppressed groups.
The only text I’ve ever read of Baldwin’s is the short story “Sonny’s Blues.” This short story explores a veteran man’s memories of his recently deceased brother Sonny who was a musician and a drug addict. The film fleshed out my understanding of Baldwin’s own life (he had eight siblings). His brother talked about how they became close after James first came back from Paris. Baldwin cared very deeply for his siblings– he was the oldest and took care of them– as well as his nieces and nephews. If you’re interested in watching the film, it’s available at Duquesne’s Gumberg Library.
This film led me to reflect on my own experiences abroad and how they’ve made me hyper-aware of my identity as a citizen of the United States. When I was at a Word and Music Studies conference in Aarhus, Denmark, I had the opportunity to engage with people from Germany, Russia, Belgium. When we sat around talking and drinking, my new friends constantly and playfully identified me as the American because I wanted to quickly and tangibly find solutions to their problems (concerning love or departmental conflicts) rather than ruminate on them for hours. When I presented my paper at this conference, I made explicit arguments and clearly articulated why what I was talking about was significant. In contrast, many of my European peers didn’t feel the need to make explicitly direct arguments or justify why they were doing was important. I quickly learned that in Europe, engaging with the arts is a given and a right, not a privilege. Perhaps this is what was part of the allure for Baldwin, too. Engaging with new places and people has sharpened my understanding of who I am, and has fleshed out my single story of other people and places.
This film also highlighted a key facet of our course– thinking of American and canonical texts within a global frame. Understanding Baldwin as a global citizen highlights the sharp, unapologetic observations he makes of race relations in the United States. While I was still sitting in the central part of City of Asylum, by the end of the film screening, I had undergone a journey around the world. I left with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Baldwin’s works and the impact that engaging with cultures has on understanding myself better. On my journey that evening, I luckily had time to take one more left.