Lessons from James Baldwin On International Women's Day, his influence on my mother

by Leslie Layton

James Baldwin portrait by Gus Bouquet
James Baldwin portrait by Gus Bouquet

My closest sense of connection to the writer James Baldwin comes not through the wonderful film showing through March 9 at the Pageant Theatre about him, and not even through iconic books like “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which I read during my formative first year in college.

It comes through a painting of him, a less-than-literal interpretation of the mood and character that I might have glimpsed had I known James Baldwin as a boy. I keep that painting – which happens to be my most treasured keepsake from my late mother – hanging on a wall near whatever desk I use when I work – that is, when I really work — at writing.

And so, on this International Women’s Day 2017, I sit down to write something that is as much about my mother as it is about James Baldwin.

That my mother – a 39-year-old woman who was raising three children in the white-as-cotton ultra-conservative town that Paradise was in the 1960s – acquired this painting is a story in itself. That it was a fixture in our living room, always hanging in a prominent place, is also a story in itself.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t know who the painting represented or the story of its acquisition, even though it hung over the piano I was coaxed into practicing every day. I only knew that the teary, thoughtful black boy in the painting was a quiet shadow in our family, a persistent reminder that something was wrong outside our home on that serene ridge, surrounded by towering pines and filled with items, like the piano, that represented opportunity and education and middle-classness.

By the time I was a teenager, I knew the painting was an interpretive portrait of the writer James Baldwin. I knew that the artist, Gus Bouquet, had captured Baldwin’s deep eyes with an almost strange precision. My mother had purchased the painting from Bouquet after participating in a 1963 educators’ tour of the California Medical Facility, the state prison in Vacaville, where the artist was incarcerated.

I had a vague idea that Baldwin’s brutal honesty about race in America caused him to be viewed by many families like mine as a radical. But it wasn’t until years later that I came to understand that the act of buying that painting was a reflection of my mother’s radicalism.

My mother was first a homemaker, then a graduate student and finally a psychology professor at Chico State who became a pioneer both at home and on campus. As her teaching and counseling career began to occupy more of her time, we shifted from our “Leave it to Beaver” family structure to unfamiliar terrain. I was a witness as my mother negotiated the tensions and maneuvered the friction that arose as my father, and for that matter all of us, were asked to assume more household responsibilities.

On campus, she taught and promoted courses like “The Psychology of Prejudice” that were in those years an innovation.

The film about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro,” reminded me that my mother had been profoundly influenced by Baldwin’s writing and speaking. The film captures and develops one of Baldwin’s central themes: that America’s future, its survival as a democratic republic, would hinge on its capacity to come to terms with the meaning of slavery, exploitation and racism.

My mother was near the end of her life when I began to realize what the Baldwin painting meant to her and to artist Bouquet. On one afternoon when she was in a particularly melancholy mood — I was packing her belongings and she would soon move into a retirement home — I removed the painting from the wall. To my surprise, she had taped a letter from Bouquet to the back of the frame at the time of purchase.

I asked my mother then why she had purchased the painting. She recalled pausing during the prison tour and watching as Bouquet finished work on the painting. Something about the portrait struck her as powerful and moving. Later, she contacted the warden and asked him to tell Bouquet that she wanted to purchase that painting.

In his letter in response, Bouquet told my mother that Baldwin had been a great inspiration to him and parting with the painting hadn’t been easy. But he sensed that my mother needed the painting, perhaps more than even he did.

By the time I researched Bouquet on the Web he had passed away. But he had become a well-known artist who obtained a master’s degree and authored books. Like Baldwin, he had found ways to tell his story and demonstrate his truth. I was sorry – and so was my mother – that we never got a chance to tell him what the painting had meant to us.

When I hear Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, describe slaves as immigrants in search of opportunity, I know that we have failed, miserably, to meet the challenge Baldwin articulated. When I hear President Trump attack and accuse former President Obama of all manner of delusional wrongdoing, I know that the assasinations that were shaping the work of Baldwin before he passed away haven’t stopped, they’ve just changed in form.

I also know something now about the power of art to speak truth. Baldwin’s work and the work it inspired – including Bouquet’s painting — helped my mother direct her destiny and teach me to do the same.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from James Baldwin On International Women's Day, his influence on my mother

  1. Leslie,
    That is the most beautiful essay of yours I have ever read. I’ve known you for about 8 years and heard about your mother many times, but after reading this I finally feel like I imagine her as a person.

  2. Leslie,
    Your words are truly from the heart, chapters in the lives of four people, literature in its finest measure.

  3. Thank you for this, Leslie. Tears are rolling down as I type these words. The legacy of James Baldwin and your mother contrasted with the violence of our present time makes me deeply sad. Yet the hope is, in this extremity good people everywhere are rising up and refusing to allow the hatred of racism to continue.

  4. Leslie, this essay is the finest tribute you could make to your mother’s legacy. It’s beautifully written and really tugged my heartstrings. I speak often of your mother to my family and “liberal” friends, and of her courage in those early Paradise days tackling such hatefilled , misguided people as the Birchers. When I reflect on today’s social justice ills, those Bircher days seem mild! I know she must be very proud of you, as you definitely inherited her soul for justice.

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