Notes on a Text by James Baldwin.

Notes on a Text by James Baldwin.

"We are all mediators, translators." 

- Jacques Derrida

 

 

Becky Grajeda

In my performance On a Text by James Baldwin, I reduce a page and a half long excerpt of James Baldwin’s Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind to four or five words.  I do this through a process of reading aloud, audio recording, and transcription.

As from the directions for the performance:

 

Performer A reads full text aloud.

Performer B audio records on audio cassette tape Performer A reading aloud.

Performer B rewinds audio cassette and plays back recording of Performer A reading aloud.

Performer A, while listening to the recording of herself reading aloud, writes down as much as possible of what she hears.

Performer A reads aloud what she has just written.

Performer B audio records on audio cassette tape Performer A reading aloud.

Performer B rewinds audio cassette and plays back just recorded recording of Performer A reading aloud.

Performer A, while listening to the recording of herself reading aloud, writes down as much as possible of what she hears.

 

And so on.

 

(There is also a visual element involving an overhead projector and transparency, which I will not focus on, but of which appears in the photo documentation of the performance.)

 

This is an exercise on processing words, texts.  I devised the process before choosing the Baldwin text.  That in listening to someone speak, be it in conversation or in a lecture or news broadcast, you hear through the context of your own thoughts and experience, with or without consideration of the context from which the speaker speaks or the intended meaning of the author.  The author and/or speaker’s original intention may be understood or completely distorted through the ears of the listener or somewhat understood.  My thought in creating this work was to listen without attention to the meaning of the words so as to find new and/or different meaning in Baldwin’s text detached from my moral leanings and personal interests.  

 

I chose Baldwin’s text because it profoundly describes the no place in which black people exist in the United States.  It tears at my heart, this reality that I do not live but deeply feel. I am white for all intents and purposes – my father is first generation Mexican American, my mother northern European American.  My skin and hair color are light and I have always passed for white, though my last name is Spanish.  I do not assume to know the experiences of black people or those considered the other in the United States or other Anglo dominated countries.  I know the experience of being assumed white when I am the other to the point that it reaches my inner being, that I consider myself white, or rather my experiences to be those of a white person.  It is a strange place to exist—to be considered white by those that are the other in white America when I am also an other; and so an other to the other.  Instead of looking to Chicano writers, I have, since adolescence, looked to and found solace in the words of the writers of Black America. Because of my physical coloring, I am given the opportunity to contemplate and witness race and otherness without the barrage of anger towards my otherness.

 

I realized my performance, an exercise in processing words and phrasing and text, could be used to address something of my experience in and out of otherness.  Me appearing white, I chose a second performer, also white.  We, two white women, could use this exercise in processing text to give the audience mistrust in the conveyors of the text. I, as the performer facing the audience reading aloud, serve as an authority figure not unlike the news broadcaster. Performer B sits behind a desk with her back to the audience operating the tape recorder and overhead projector, as perhaps my assistant, my note-taker.  But perhaps I am not speaking at all and everything you hear is devised and manipulated by Performer B.  We, Performers A and B, who perform from our stage under the guise of authority are purveyors of the meaning in the text that we choose to present.  (That is perhaps a too clear way of presenting it, as neither I nor Performer B ever know which of Baldwin’s words will survive our text processing to the end of the performance.) 

 

Ultimately I must say that in my performance works I use the texts of writers I greatly admire because I do not trust that I can convey my experiences with such grace and profundity through my own writing. So I entrust that duty to James Baldwin and Jorge Luis Borges and Bohumil Hrabal, etc. And because I want for their words to be heard by as many people as can and will.

 

It seems then a propos that I should leave with you the full excerpt used in On a Text on James Baldwin, that you may take from it what you will.

 

The summer wore on, and things got worse. I became more guilty and more frightened, and kept all this bottled up inside me, and naturally, inescapably, one night, when this woman had finished preaching, everything came roaring, screaming crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life—up to that time, or since. I had not known that it was going to happen, or that it could happen.  One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—than utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved. The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—and who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night. Over me, to bring me “through,” the saints sand and rejoiced and prayed. And in the morning, when they raised me, they told me that I was “saved.”

 

 

Note:

The excerpt printed above and used in On a Text by James Baldwin is from

Baldwin, James. “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” The Fire Next Time.    1962. New York: Modern Library-Random, 1995. 28-30

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 8.59.37 PM.png
My Brother

My Brother

Grammar

Grammar