Tuesday, December 12, 2023

James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison

Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison at James Baldwin's funeral, December 8, 1987

Literary scholar Ryan Sharp was recently mentioning an upcoming class he'll teach on 1990s Black poetry. His mention of the class topic had me considering a series of events in 1987 and 1988 that seem particularly significant in retrospect for the things to come with African American literary history in the 1990s.

For one, in April 1987, Rita Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was only the second Black person to win the honor since 1950 when Gwendolyn Brooks won.  

In September 1987, Toni Morrison published her novel Beloved, and although it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, Beloved did not win at the November 9 ceremony. The loss was shocking and troubling for many, with the Times running an article entitled "An Upset at the Book Awards."

There was considerable commentary about Morrison not winning, but a less noticed news item that also appeared on November 9 was an announcement from Princeton University that Morrison would join their faculty, effective in spring 1989. This seemingly minor news item was important in retrospect because during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, various elite universities began hiring major Black thinkers and scholars. 

Importantly, in 1988, Cornell University hired Henry Louis Gates, Jr., where he was briefly a colleague of M. H. Abrams, the general editor of those canon-forming Norton Anthologies. No doubt that while at Cornell interacting with Abrams, Gates began developing connections and ideas for what would become the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996, the first edition appearing in 1996). Gates left Cornel for Duke University in 1991, and then in 1991, Harvard University hired Gates. 

Morrison, Gates, and several others became associated with a wide-ranging conversation about Black Public Intellectuals. 

Ok, but returning to the main story about late 1987. 

On December 1, in Saint Paul de Vence, France, James Baldwin died. His funeral took place in New York City at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine on December 8. Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, and Toni Morrison were among Baldwin's eulogists. 

Baraka gave a particularly stirring remembrance of Baldwin. According to one journalist, Baraka offered "a long speech that was part lecture, part sermon, part reminiscence." Many observers recall emphatic declaration: "For Jimmy was God's Black revolutionary mouth!"


In late December, The Times printed versions of the Baldwin's eulogies: "Life in His Language" by Morrison, "A Brother's Love" by Angelou, and "We Carry Him as Us" by Baraka. 

Two young poets, Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharon Strange, were in the audience for Baldwin's funeral, and they were especially moved by Baraka's remarks. Ellis and Strange would go on to found the Dark Room Collective in 1988.  

Baldwin's funeral sparked something else. Seeing Morrison delivering Baldwin's eulogy likely reminded them of her National Book Award loss and of losing Baldwin without him receiving adequate praise for his contributions. So, a group of 48 Black writers wrote a letter offering praise for Toni Morrison to the New York Times, which appeared on January 24, 1988.

Later, in 1988, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved. Did the letter from those 48 Black writers influence her win? Who knows? But we do know looking back that those events in 1987 and 1988 set various events into motion that would develop more fully during the 1990s. 


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