Joseph Vogel is an assistant professor of English at Merrimack College. He is the author of Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson. He recently answered some questions about his new book, James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era.
Q: Over the course of his career James Baldwin became increasingly attuned to popular culture. How was this engagement reflected in his writing?
He just became much more interested and invested in pop culture in his work – to the point, for example, that he dedicated an entire book, The Devil Finds Work, to grappling with movies. We see constant references to popular artists, from Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson. Particularly as black culture became increasingly mainstream – and as his own celebrity grew –he was deeply concerned with how representation functioned – and what these representations and narratives revealed about us as a nation.
Q: What was the significance of Baldwin’s multimedia project, Nothing Personal?
Well, for me, it seems to represent a turning point where you see Baldwin experimenting with different forms. It wasn’t a traditional literary form – like a novel or collection of stories or essays. It was multi-media: evocative photos by legendary photographer Richard Avedon and a four-part essay that, to me, represents some of Baldwin’s most thoughtful work. So, it represents a different experience for the reader with both the text and the visuals, and how they interact with each other.
Q: What impact did cinema have on Baldwin’s life and writing?
Baldwin loved movies. He was absolutely mesmerized by the magic of the screen. But he was also among the most searing critics of Hollywood. I think because he realized how powerful it was as a medium, he couldn’t help but be disappointed about what so many of its stories and representations suggested about race and gender and America’s many blind spots and delusions.
Q: In what ways did Baldwin see the 1980s as a crossroads for people of color?
I think he sensed a certain splintering: where, on the one hand, you had unprecedented breakthroughs and triumphs, but on the other hand, there was a large portion of black America that was worse off than it was in the 60s. When he wrote about Atlanta in the early 80s, that was his focus: the darker version of Reagan’s America, where many inner-cities were dealing with unprecedented poverty, violence, and despair.
Q: How does Baldwin’s work in the 1980s resonate with our current cultural and political situation?
He speaks to our times in so many ways, which is why he’s emerged as such a powerful influence and inspiration for this generation, including the Black Lives Matter movement. We also shouldn’t forget that Donald Trump first rose to fame in the 80s, and embodies so much of what Baldwin was critiquing in that decade – its excesses and greed, its demonization of the other, its manipulation of white insecurity, its obsession with spectacle. And, of course, the backlash to progress – the attempted return to some previous golden era, which is implicit in Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” (which was stolen, incidentally, from Reagan). Reading Baldwin in the 80s, in many ways, is like reading a prophecy about our times.