Photographs from James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade
These photos are on display in the exhibition titled Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey, Photographs by Sedat Pakay at the Northwest African American Museum through September 29, 2013. All photos are copyright Sedat Pakay.
By any measure, James Baldwin is a cultural icon. In the 1950s, through the 1960s, and well into the 1970s, black American literature wore his unforgettably distinctive face. It was shaped both by his prodigious talent—as a novelist, playwright, civil rights activist, short fiction writer, and one of this country’s most prophetic and electrifying essayists—and by the profundity of his reflections on two of America’s greatest obsessions: race and sexuality. As a writer, celebrity, public intellectual, and simply as a human being, Baldwin was a study in complexity. No matter how well we, his admirers, think we know him, the horizon of his life and legacy and the full meaning of his furious passage among us sometimes seem just beyond our reach.
Happily, that horizon is brought closer and the fullness of Baldwin’s life given greater clarity by the Northwest African American Museum’s remarkable exhibit Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey, with photographs by Sedat Pakay (reproduced with permission here at YES! Magazine). To create, artists require a place where they can think and work free of distractions, one that stimulates their imagination, and we can only guess how great this need must have been for a writer as engaged in the cultural and political turmoil of his era as Baldwin was. In America, he lived constantly at the white-hot center of the civil rights revolution and saw the assassinations of two of his beloved Muslim and Christian friends, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. And he, too, lived with death threats and instant recognition whenever he walked the streets of America.
Understandably, then, Baldwin first sought a clarifying distance from his homeland in France, with other black expatriates, and then over the course of a decade in Turkey, a country notable for being a cultural crossroads in the Middle East, a location where historically Islam and Christianity meet in a kind of balance that must have appealed to Baldwin, the former child preacher. Little wonder he felt comfortable there.
As we examine these Istanbul interludes in Baldwin’s life, we are given the privilege of entering into Jimmy’s world as if we belonged to his circle of close friends. Sedat Pakay’s photos capture Baldwin at moments that are intimate, domestic, and unguarded. Here we see him in a kitchen wearing an apron as he cooks. There he smiles slyly as he cuts a deck of cards. These often astonishing images show him at work before an antique typewriter, enjoying the children and common folk of Turkey, puffing on a hookah, clowning in a funny hat and outlandish sunglasses and always delighting in the company of his friends.
Again and again these seldom-seen photographs from this chapter in Baldwin’s rich life come at us as quiet revelations. They are a gift from the Northwest African American Museum that makes one of America’s greatest writers live vividly once more in our minds and hearts.
Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary critic, short story writer, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, Seattle. This essay originally appeared as the forward to Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey, and is reprinted by YES! Magazine with permission.
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