Robert Reid-Pharr ’94 Ph.D., Professor of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality, and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, meditated critically on challenges in biographical research in the 2019 James Weldon Johnson Memorial Lecture at the Beinecke Library on October 29, co-sponsored by Yale’s Department of African American Studies.
Reid-Pharr opened with words from James Baldwin, a writer well represented in the library through an extensive collection of manuscripts, typescripts, and correspondence. He read Baldwin’s reflections from Alas, Poor Richard about fellow writer Richard Wright, perceived by Baldwin as a figure who had never seemed fully human and forgivable of fault, but an idol, claiming “idols are created in order to be destroyed.”
Through interpretation of Baldwin, Reid-Pharr examined contemporary African American and African diasporic cultural studies and focused on the issue that “we are people more or less obsessed equal measures with both the archive and celebrity,” noting that continued oppression of descendants of African slaves is tied to a lack of history and documentation of how black people have endured a 400-year struggle.
Reid-Pharr argued that the celebrity and celebration of such idols as Baldwin and Wright are “central to contemporary African and African diasporic intellectual and cultural practice” and that it is difficult to distinguish “our undying desire to rediscover, uncover, and reinvent a presumably lost past” from “the practice of celebrity”.
Citing a famous comparison between Wright’s Native Son and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that Baldwin makes at the end of his “Everybody’s Protest” essay – “the contemporary negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly timeless battle” – Reid-Pharr claimed the argument “was structured by a politics of black… archivization into which the two giants were actively attempting to intervene,” manipulating the directions of their legacies. To illustrate his point, Reid-Pharr described a famous encounter between Baldwin, Wright, and Chester Himes at a cafe in Paris in which Baldwin exclaimed to Wright “I am going to destroy your reputation, you’ll see,” emphasizing the event’s performativity as its essence.
Reid-Pharr further spoke on the self-aware and constructed nature of the letters of Baldwin and his contemporaries, such as Alex Haley, who corresponded with Baldwin about writing his biography. This reality of how a figure such as Baldwin constructs his own legacy complicates the archives and biography, something Reid-Pharr contemplates as he currently is working on a new biography of Baldwin.
Closing the lecture, Reid-Pharr stated that our biographical practices ultimately serve the needs of the present and cannot yield objectivity. Agreeing with Baldwin’s claim that “idols are created in order to be destroyed”, he added “the worshiper, the fanatic, the celebrant, and the true believer are always the first to go.”