Rebel is Rebecca Carroll's regular conversation on race and pop culture. You can hear Rebecca talk about these issues with guests on Wednesday mornings on WNYC, or participate in one of Rebel's regular conversations in The Greene Space.
In 2006, I published a book that sought to reconsider and reflect on The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois through a collective lens — my own personal vignettes paired with passages from the book, along with insights from black public figures and influencers. I chose this format because Du Bois, and specifically this seminal, foundational work, seemed so much bigger than my own relationship to it, and the ways in which it has shaped my worldview as a black woman. And so it was with a particularly poignant sense of empathy that I bore witness to God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, curated by the distinguished critic, author and New Yorker essayist, Hilton Als.
I am of the mind that all art and writing are of a piece—that writers at our best find ways to put words together that evoke a visceral response, words that don't simply tell a story, but that create a multilayered, nuanced narrative rich in texture and a kind of literary aesthetic. In the same way, art—whether paintings or films or sculpture—seeks to transcend just being observed or looked at, as artists are always trying to make people feel something in their bodies. That is precisely what Als wanted to do with God Made My Face. "I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to go to the gallery and see people having physical reactions to the shows," Als told me. And there is much to feel.
The exhibit, which features a magnificent lineup of artists including Kara Walker, Beauford Delaney, Richard Avedon, Glenn Ligon and Njideka Akunyili Crosby, succeeds in making people feel, because of the weight and beauty of Baldwin himself, but also because it is a true coalescence of art and writing—it presents a wholeness, but with many pieces. And when we, as black writers and artists, create or are a part of this quilted bloom, we experience something that has never happened before. A notion that Baldwin himself understood, having famously once said: "No one can possibly know what is about to happen: it is happening, each time, for the first time, for the only time."
There is something so exhilarating about gathering a thoughtful array of artists and writers to capture the glory of someone as beloved, iconic and meaningful as Baldwin, especially right now, when every single piece of commentary Baldwin ever offered is as powerful and salient today as it was 50 years ago. God Made My Face is a quietly striking, collagist salutation that reaches well beyond what we think we know about James Baldwin to ultimately becomes its own otherworldly work of art.
Hilton Als did that, and I was so honored to sit down to talk with him about it for this week's REBEL:
"God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin" is on view at the David Zwirner Gallery (525 & 533 West 19th Street, New York, NY) through February 16.
Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and Editor of Special Projects at WNYC, where she develops, produces and hosts a broad array of multi-platform content, including podcasts, live events and on-air broadcasts. Rebecca is also the author of several interview-based books about race and blackness in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw, and her personal essays, cultural commentary and opinion pieces have been published widely. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.