I went to UMass Amherst to find James Baldwin, but he was gone before I got there. Baldwin had taught very well-regarded writing class that was open to students of all class years. Students were admitted entry based on the strength of their writing. Some time in the spring of 1986 after I had committed to enroll at UMass, I learned that Baldwin would not be returning, but I still went. That fall an unprecedented race riot broke out on campus. It was, on the surface, about Major League Baseball and the Boston Red Sox losing the World Series to the New York Mets in October, 1986. A Black student wearing a Mets cap was chased by a large group of white students and beaten unconscious with a golf club. It was estimated that 2,000 students, nearly all white were involved.
It was a horrible ordeal for me as a new transfer student and for the entire campus to some degree. Black students organized and occupied an Africana Studies building. If I recall correctly, the objectives at that time were for a thorough investigation, that the attackers be punished, and that UMass take steps to make the campus a safe and welcoming environment. Months later an official report was released. Here’s a mild New York Times accounting of the situation.
In 1989, UMass would roll out a “Week of Civility” as a step toward improving all race relations on campus. This New York Times article about the “Week of Civility” includes detail on the riot of October, 1986.
I wonder if Baldwin may have known that he was ill in ’86. He would die of stomach cancer a year later. He spent September, 1986 to September, 1987, collaborating on the spoken word project “A Lover’s Question.” Scroll down to listen: here.
If I was looking to experience some kind of racial awakening at UMass in 1986, it worked, even though Baldwin was gone when I got there.
On this first day of February, I honor James Baldwin as a force in my life.
The photograph at top is cropped from a Carl Van Vechten portrait of Baldwin, 1955. SOURCE: The Beinecke Library at Yale University where you’ll find Baldwin photographs, personal papers and type-written drafts online.