On Thursday, April 18, Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University, Robert Reid-Pharr, delivered the annual Diane Weiss ’80 Memorial Lecture at Russell House. Reid-Pharr’s talk, titled “This Grey Gulf: James Baldwin and the Making of American Celebrity,” was based on his work on a biography of American novelist James Baldwin. The lecture examined Baldwin’s life through the lens of celebrity and his public image in the United States.
Reid-Pharr has taught at the College of William and Mary, the American University of Beirut, the University of Oxford, and the University of Oregon. He is a specialist in African-American culture and a prominent scholar in the field of race and sexuality studies.
Reid-Pharr began his talk with a quote from one of Baldwin’s unpublished essays.
“A celebrated artist is, so far as the public is concerned, a vulnerable, possibly valuable, fallen or abandoned object on a lonely beach,” Reid-Pharr read.
This quote served as a preface for Reid-Pharr’s own paper, which discussed the complexities of the life and career of the African-American novelist.
“Of most interest to me…is how [Baldwin’s] status as a celebrity reveals something of the impossibly fraught relationship that Americans, in our various forms, have to celebrities and celebrity culture,” Reid-Pharr explained.
Reid-Pharr’s research focuses on the fear, contradiction, and resignation that lay under Baldwin’s fame and celebrity. He is especially interested in the relationship between Baldwin’s public perception and the political and social contexts of the time in which Baldwin lived, which was characterized by the Civil Rights Movement, hate crimes, police brutality, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As Reid-Pharr explained, the way in which Baldwin’s image was produced was largely affected by tropes that characterized African Americans of the era. While Baldwin’s work was widely praised by editors in white spheres, their admiration was often accompanied by the suggestion that Baldwin was an exception for his race.
“I want to situate Baldwin at exactly the negotiated terrain that celebrity represents,” Reid-Pharr explained. “As Baldwin is acclaimed as an exceptional, even superior black individual, his celebrity is built at least in part on the ways in which he is imagined to announce and support American racial protocols.”
As Reid-Pharr noted, Baldwin was simultaneously admired and criticized as someone who had no particular portfolio and whose arguments were overblown.
Instances that highlighted the contradictions of Baldwin’s public perception, such as when a newspaper article praising Baldwin was published alongside racist ads, were not lost on the author.
“It is important that we recognize that James Baldwin himself is very much aware of the complex ways in which his delivery was produced,” Reid-Pharr said.
While Reid-Pharr felt that he had done his best to accurately portray Baldwin, he acknowledged that he was not sure the author would tolerate a study of his life, nor was he sure that Baldwin would agree with characterizations of his image.
“I am in now way confident that the novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, and activist James Arthur Baldwin…would have enjoyed or even have tolerated a study of his life and work,” Reid Pharr concluded. “I hope that I made clear that my insistence on getting us up close to Baldwin’s fragrant, living flesh…simply repeats in a more vibrant key the forms of castigation, amazement that we saw in Robert Warshow, Alex Haley, and a wealth of commentators on the author.”
Tanvi Punja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.