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Go Tell It On Charles Street

Station North Arts Café hosts James Baldwin conference

Photo: Rarah, License: N/A

Rarah

Station North Arts Cafe owner Kevin Brown with artist Paula Baldwin-Whaley, James Baldwin’s sister.


Kevin Brown and his partner William Maughlin opened the Station North Arts Café Gallery on North Charles Street, just above Lafayette Avenue, seven years ago, when the neighborhood was only a few years into arts-and-entertainment-district wishful thinking. The 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Charles Street weren’t the dubious stretches they were during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but nowhere near as active as they are now. Not only was the Hexagon (RIP) a few years off, but the Lo Fi Social Club had yet to relocate to the neighborhood from Brooklyn. The Metro Gallery, the Bohemian Coffee Shop, the Windup Space, the Strand Theater weren’t around yet. Early adopter Sofi’s Crepes had been open about a year; Tapas Teatro four; and Zodiac was still around. Staying strong were those anchors of the area—the Charles Theater, the Club Charles, Everyman Theatre, Caribbean Paradise, and Pearson’s Florist—but the now-bustling footprint of the area felt a ways off.

Brown, a former Baltimore Sun and Afro-American staffer and city of Baltimore Department of Housing & Community Development spokesperson, is nothing if not optimistic. Tall, thin, and infectiously upbeat, Brown welcomed customers with an embracing greeting and learned regulars’ names with an effortless charm. He’s an ebullient self-starter, and the café wasn’t the first time he started building something from the ground up.

In 1987, he and two friends started the James Baldwin Literary Society in Baltimore merely because they wanted to celebrate the life and works of a black writer whose piercing intelligence was as moving as his eloquent decency. The Society holds a 25th anniversary weekend of events Aug. 2-4 in the neighborhood with a performance, an art exhibition, a jazz brunch, and more.

Over the years, the Society has sponsored a variety of public programs, and when the café opened in 2005, Brown started holding events there. He even put a photo of Baldwin in the café’s front window. “And this sassy black woman comes and knocks on my door and says, ‘Why you got a picture of my brother in your window?’” Brown recalls during a recent evening interview at the café. He is apparently just as excited at the end of his day as he is at the beginning, breathlessly running through stories. “And I said, ‘Who’s your brother?’ And she says, ‘James Baldwin.’”

Brown pauses and makes the surprised face that used to conveyed “You’ve got to be kidding me” back in the silent-movie days. Paula Baldwin-Whaley, an artist, moved to Baltimore about two years earlier and lived a few blocks north, on Charles Street. She’s the youngest of Baldwin’s still-living sisters. Go Tell it On a Mountain, Baldwin’s 1953 debut novel, is dedicated to her. Brown told her he started the Society “because I fell in love with your brother and his work through his writings, and nobody asked me to—I just wanted to,” he says. “And she invited me to her house, and she pulled out this box of love.”

They spent an evening opening up postcards and letters Baldwin had sent her, addressed “to my baby sister.” She introduced him to her older sister Gloria, who is in charge of the Baldwin estate. Brown says Baldwin’s family appreciates what he has done with the Society, showing him the same kind of incredible graciousness that Baldwin himself extended when Brown first met him, in the early 1980s.

For the 1981-’82 season at Center Stage, then-artistic director Stan Wojewodski decided to revive Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner, which Owen Dodson premiered at Howard University in 1954, prior to its Broadway run in 1965. Arena Players gave the play its Baltimore premiere in 1969, but it only ran for nine days. Wojewodski invited Walter Dallas, a Philadelphia director who would later found the University of the Arts School of Theater Arts and who served as the artistic director of the Freedom Theater. Brown was a young actor with a supernumerary role in the production, but it presented him the opportunity to meet Baldwin, who was also invited to see the production.

“I just identified with him, and he was approachable and he was accessible,” Brown says. “And he said, ‘What am I going to do? Sit in my hotel room and do nothing?’ He made himself available, not just to me, but to anybody in the cast who was interested in what he had to say. He was just that kind of person.”

After one of the productions, Brown invited Baldwin and members of the cast and crew back to his brother’s house in Charles Village, where they sat around until 4 A.M., talking and listening to him “telling stories about the black experience and writing and the movement,” Brown says. “And he listened. He engaged you and invited you to give back. He had a way of really helping you find out where you were.”

Brown says he had long enjoyed Baldwin’s writing, and meeting him gave him an appreciation of Baldwin’s viewpoints, his stories of being poor and black and not using that as a crutch. “I grew up in a house of 17 children, and my mother did not allow us to use that,” Brown says. She would say, “‘You better not say something happened because I was black or I was treated this way because I was black.’ [Baldwin] was that way. He was like, ‘You got to go beyond that.’ He was on a television show; I think it was Dick Cavett or Mike Douglas or one of those ’70s shows and they asked him, ‘How did you come out of this? You’re black, you’re gay, you’re poor.’ And [Baldwin’s] response was, ‘I thought I hit the trifecta. Where else can you go with that but up?’”

That sense of possibility, that sense of something else permeates Baldwin’s oeuvre, from his fearsomely sharp essays to his novels and plays. Baldwin’s mind was prescient enough to see how class, race, and sexuality were tangled up in the culture and politics of the world around him, and he started exploring the personally political, as he experienced it, as a black American man prior to the rise of New Journalism in the 1960s. His essays were sometimes interpreted as militant, though he was infamously slighted by Eldridge Cleaver, but today his words sting more for their passion and intelligence. His 1972 No Name in the Streets was his first essay collection since 1963’s incendiary dissection of American racial relations, The Fire Next Time, which presaged the ’60s tumult yet to come. But following that bloody decade, Baldwin’s unflappable humanism remains intact, capturing in a single sentence a troubling observation that still resonates in this insanely fractious election year: “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

“If somebody asked me to sum up James Baldwin, I would say it’s ‘All men are brothers, no matter what color you are,’” Brown says. “He did what he could [in his works], and I thought it was important always to uplift, to keep his name out there. What’s wonderful about James Baldwin is that he touches everybody at some point.”

The James Baldwin Literary Society exhibit is open to the public Aug. 3-7, at the Station North Arts Café gallery. Visit jamesbaldwin.org for full schedule.

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