Gwendolyn Craig, The Citizen • Jim Brady and Mickey Belosi, of Auburn, took a trip to New York City. On their itinerary was a stop in Harlem to walk in the footsteps of an author influencing a six-week, ongoing discussion nearly 30 years after he died — James Baldwin.
Baldwin, who authored many famous works including “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room,” is known for writing about race and sexuality. He is considered a revolutionary writer, composing these works and shedding light on these topics, which were especially taboo in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I got my New York City map out,” Belosi said. “He said, ‘My neighborhood was this street, to this street, to this street,’ and I drew my little rectangle there, and then I found online, they had the walking tour. It wasn’t the same Harlem that he experienced, and we certainly weren’t in any kind of situation that he was. We were in the daytime, two old white people.”
But the Belosis saw the YMCA Baldwin talked about in his works. They ate at Sylvia’s Restaurant.
“When you were all describing your walk, I was almost moved to tears,” said Gwen Webber-Mcleod, one of the participants of the discussion. “I know people who won’t walk down Chapman Avenue in Auburn, right? So for you to have your own experience, that’s the kind of stuff that causes shifts in perspectives.”
Humanities New York, the Harriet Tubman Boosters and Cayuga Community College’s School of Media and the Arts, gathered about 15 residents from Auburn and a few other surrounding cities and towns, to delve into the works of James Baldwin. But it wasn’t just a book club.
Participants of the group, James Baldwin’s America, discussed race and racism not just as they appear in Baldwin’s work, but as they appear in their own day-to-day experiences.
“I think it goes from the Harriet Tubman Boosters in setting this program up, that they wanted to have an actual impact on the community,” said George Kilpatrick, host of New Inspiration for the Nation, and the facilitator of the discussion group. “It was important for us not to just talk about the literature, but also to apply it to what is happening here, and then have action steps to make some change in the community.”
The group, made up of people both black and white, set the tone of the discussion right off the bat during its first meeting Jan. 7.
“There were a number of people in the group who said some very personal things,” said Brady. “They laid out some stuff about their own personal histories that you ordinarily wouldn’t discuss, especially in a group of strangers. That really set the tone that this group is going to be for real and honest here, and let it all hang out.”
Each week the group reads a book or a series of Baldwin’s essays and uses those works as a jumping-off-point for literary discussion and social commentary. Not everyone agrees, and at times, the discussion can become heated as different views are expressed, and the group tries to excavate where those views originated.
“We continue to learn, and we have tension,” Kilpatrick said. “That’s good. Because you know that we’re walking in this stuff every single day, and it’s through that tension that we’re going to get to the other side.
“I’m just very impressed with the willingness for people to be awkward in discussions around race and ethnicity, but also willing to learn and say, ‘You know, I didn’t know that, and I appreciate that.'”
Laurel Ullyette, president of the Harriet Tubman Boosters, said she would have liked to have had more African Americans involved in the group. Three, not including Kilpatrick, were present at Thursday night’s meeting. According to the U.S. Census, in 2014 Cayuga County’s population was about 93 percent white and 4 percent black. Ullyette had to reach out to contacts to make sure they had a relatively diverse group.
Shawnte Barr, who goes by the name Blyss, said was was happy to participate in the discussion group.
“I had come in contact with racist people, and I had not let it change me,” she said. “And I felt that by lending my voice, I can make a change somehow. So that’s why I joined this.”
Kilpatrick said at one of the meetings, no black participants were able to make it, and it became a challenge to remain in the facilitator role.
“That was a tough discussion,” Kilpatrick said. “What I tried to do was ask questions that would reflect that experience because that experience wasn’t reflected on that particular night.”
After each meeting, Kilpatrick asks the group to come up with action items, things they can all do to make Auburn better. Diverse Auburn, a new committee of the Harriet Tubman Center for Justice & Peace, is growing as a result of some of these action items. Many people from the James Baldwin’s America group have joined Diverse Auburn. It’s a way to continue the conversation when the discussion group ends Feb. 25.
“The real test will be what happens because the impact they want to have is beyond this discussion,” Kilpatrick said. “They want to have an impact in this community in terms of where people go to eat, where they socialize, the kind of representation they have in political leadership, the kind of entertainment they draw the the community. They have really embarked upon changing Auburn.”
And it all stemmed from Baldwin. Webber-Mcleod felt there was something spiritual about it.
“I think how brave he was to put himself out there,” she said. “That was so brave, everything that he did and the time that he did it. If we’re going to make a shift, it’s going to require us all to be courageous.”
Heidi Nightengale, another participant, felt the same way.
“It was just serendipitous,” she said.