An Evening in History with James Baldwin brought together more than 100 students, alumni, and members of the community to celebrate the life and legacy of the late novelist, activist, and playwright at Emerson College Los Angeles on February 23.
Presented by the EBONI Alumni Association, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the evening featured a salon-style performance by actor and author Charles Reese, followed by a presentation on Emerson’s global footprint by Dr. Anthony L. Pinder, the College’s Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs – Internalization and Global Engagement.
“This event was part education and part art, and it got people activated to think about their life and their world,” said Reese, who earned critical acclaim for his off-Broadway performance of Howard Simon’s production of James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire. “As Emerson sits in Hollywood, tonight’s event serves not only the students, but also the community.”
The night kicked off with Charvelle Holder-Dobard ’13, president of the EBONI Alumni Association, welcoming guests and reading an excerpt from the foreword of James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire.
“It’s amazing to see all of these people come together to celebrate James Baldwin,” said Holder-Dobard. “With the success of the film If Beale Street Could Talk and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, it’s a great opportunity to unite and honor a civil rights powerhouse.”
Reese began his performance salon by walking into the crowd and singing a traditional civil rights song, “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize.” Throughout the lively performance, he invited the audience to participate via call and response, played a clip from the short film Roundtable ’63 featuring significant moments in history, performed as Baldwin, and read excerpts from Baldwin’s work.
Among the alumni in attendance was Chrystee Pharris ’98, who wanted to support the EBONI Alumni Association as well as celebrate Baldwin during Black History Month.
“James Baldwin was brilliant and bold,” said Pharris. “His work showed so many people from the black and gay and lesbian communities. It’s important that we honor his legacy.”
During his performance, Reese called students and alumni up to the front of the room and read an excerpt from Baldwin’s best-selling book The Fire Next Time. First published in 1963, the book contains two essays, including one written as a letter to Baldwin’s teenage nephew, which discusses issues of race in America.
“Your job is to live life the best you can,” Reese told the students and alumni. “Don’t let anyone take that from you.”
Kim Hamer ’94 was among the alumni standing in the front of the room receiving Reese’s words.
“It was nice to look at all of us up there, from current students to people who graduated in 1979,” said Hamer. “It was great to have that connection.”
Wrapping up the evening, Pinder discussed how the College is expanding its global footprint. Among the programs he discussed was the James Baldwin Writers’ Colony at Kasteel Well in the Netherlands. The four-week program invites students to write, workshop, and revise short works of fiction and nonfiction inspired by the literature of African-Americans who lived and worked in Europe. Reese served as the 2018 Artist in Residence/Cultural Architect for Public Engagement for the inaugural James Baldwin Writers’ Colony.
“The support and engagement from the community for this event has been incredible,” said Pinder, who has known Reese since college.
Many Emersonians and non-Emersonians alike reiterated Pinder’s comments. Lakeisha Bearden brought members of her family to the event, including a few pre-teens.
“This is a great event, especially for people that may not know the history behind Baldwin and his works,” said Bearden.
“Any time I can come to a room and celebrate James Baldwin, I’m there,” added Marlene McCurtis ’79. “It was wonderful to have so many people from our community here.”
Hamer said the event was a great opportunity for her to support EBONI’s new leadership, reconnect with friends, and celebrate Baldwin. Her favorite part of the evening was learning details about a meeting between Baldwin and members of the Kennedy administration in 1963, which compelled her to add a prayer thanking her ancestors.
“It reminded me to think about those small details in history,” said Hamer.
Reese said that he hopes to bring the salon-style performance to other schools, colleges, and organizations across the country, to inspire people to enact change.
“I always like to say to young people who attend my performance: You still have a charge, you can still make a difference,” said Reese.
It was a sentiment that resonated with Holder-Dobard.
“I hope James Baldwin’s message really electrifies all of us to take action, especially with all that’s going on in the world right now,” she said.