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Convocation AddressTransformation and RenewalMoving Beyond Existential Crisis

September 6, 2017

Thank you, President Bradley, for that generous introduction. Welcome back students, faculty, staff and guests. I’m grateful to President Elizabeth Bradley, and my colleagues, and am honored to have this opportunity to speak to all of you today. It is a special opportunity for us all (whether we are students, staff, administrators, parents, alumni, faculty or visitors) to gather as a community in recognition of the collective work we undertake here. I’m particularly excited to address the Class of 2018. I had the pleasure of serving as your class advisor during your sophomore and junior years. I am impressed by your enormous talents, steadfast diligence and perseverance. Guess what? You’re in the home stretch now!

The title of my talk is “Transformation & Renewal: Moving Beyond Existential Crisis.” I recognize convocation as a celebratory moment. It’s an opportunity to be thankful for our health and ability to be here at the beginning of a new academic year. It is also an opportunity to welcome our new leader to the helm. On behalf of the presidential search committee, let me say we are very excited for you to get to know President Bradley. As some of you already know, she is a dynamic leader, an exceptional administrator, and an intellectual who is approachable and grounded.

Today I also feel obliged to begin by acknowledging the difficulties we (as an academic community, and as conscientious global citizens) are facing. Every day we are witnessing the repercussions of a deeply divisive national election. It is impossible to listen to the radio, read the news, or talk about anything without acknowledging the political environment. It seems the tectonic plates undergirding our socio-economic, cultural and political foundation are shifting.

For example, there are shifts to Civil Rights and social policy afoot. If you’ve ever been underpaid because you’re a woman, discriminated against because you are LGBTQ, mistreated by law enforcement because you’re a person of color, or live in fear because of your immigration status, then perhaps you’ve already faced civil rights issues personally.

This July, the Trump administration announced that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military or be protected by civil rights law. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has sided with Texas to support voter ID laws. We just witnessed the national disgrace of a racist and anti-Semitic march in Charlottesville, Virginia. The administration would like to take steps against affirmative action in college admissions. And now, there’s movement to make immigration more elusive and dismantle DACA.

The political climate changes impacting higher education began before the Trump presidency. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, we find ourselves in the “credential economy” trying to prove the value of a college degree in an often anti-intellectual world. Faculty at Vassar, and elsewhere, have been asked to rationalize, assess, consolidate, and explain what we do in the classroom. Meanwhile, news magazines like US New & World Report, or The Chronicle of Higher Education publish articles praising colleges that get the most “bang for their buck” and the “economies of scale”[1] that can be achieved by large, supposedly more efficient institutions. These conversations are happening alongside inquiries about the practicality and utility of the liberal arts.

Given all that is going on in the world today, it is understandable that we might question the meaning of our work as students and teachers, or the efficacy of our activism as advocates, or the impact of our scholarship as researchers and scientists. We might even find ourselves asking existential questions—wondering if we have chosen the best pathway to fortify ourselves, to impact the world around us, or to fight the evils of domestic terrorism.

As a late 19th and early 20th century philosophical movement, existentialism is concerned with finding oneself, and the meaning of life, through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. People are basically searching to find out who and what they are as they make choices based on experiences, beliefs and outlook. Existentialism has range of positions associated with it (religious moralism, agnostic relativism, amoral atheism). But there’s one major theme: the emphasis on individual existence, subjectivity, and freedom of choice. The idea of searching for a meaningful purpose in life sounds a lot like college to me.

As you know, I’m a film professor and there are certainly dozens of existentialist films, which deal with elements of this broad theme. There are Italian neorealist films of the 1940s such as Rome, Open City (1945), French New Wave movies like Hiroshima, Mon Amor (1959) or New Black Realist movies of the 1990s. The titles Boyz in the Hood (1991) Menace II Society (1993) and Set It Off (1996) come to mind. But for me, the relationship between the cinema, existentialism and civil rights can be summed up in the pioneering scholarship of one person: James Baldwin.

A novelist, essayist, playwright, and activist, he was a black, gay intellectual whose wisdom I want to invoke today because James Baldwin was one of the first African American intellectuals to genuinely understand and write about, the relationship between the cinema (as constitutive of Culture), civil rights (particularly for Blacks in 1960s America), and – in his own way—Existentialism (that is: our quest as human beings for meaningful, moral lives in a too often hostile world). I’m broadly referring to all of Baldwin’s work but specifically to the essays in Notes of a Native Son and No Name in the Street.

James Baldwin: Background

I began thinking about this convocation address around the anniversary of Baldwin’s birthday in early August. It occurred to me then that this is a perfect opportunity to reflect on his life and work. Baldwin was born in 1924 and he grew up in Harlem. The oldest son of Emma Jones and David Baldwin, he had a difficult time with his abusive stepfather. Still, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps, becoming a youth minister in his adolescence and was encouraged to develop his writing talents by teachers and mentors. He eventually left the church but never lost the moral compass it gave him. In Harlem, he had the good fortune to meet Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement.

In 1943, at the age of 19, he lived in Greenwich Village but left the U.S. for France in 1948 to pursue a writing career unfettered by American racism and homophobia. In Europe, he felt he was treated more humanely, though he recognized parallels between the Algerian and Black American struggles for justice. While abroad he finished his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), which catapulted him to literary stardom. As he rose to prominence for his achievements, he also became close with celebrated artists, activists and dignitaries such as Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, Marlon Brando, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Maya Angelou, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 when civil rights legislation was being debated in Congress. He returned home because he was deeply moved by the image of Dorothy Counts being harassed while trying to attend (read: desegregate) Harry Harding high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 4th 1957.

Because he loved working with young people in the struggle for civil rights, he joined CORE (the Congress on Racial Equality) and advised SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). During the turbulent 1960s, he befriended King and regarded him as a younger brother. In 1978, ten years after Dr. King’s assassination, Baldwin was still feeling the painful impact of that loss as he reflected on the reverend’s most celebrated speech.

I have a dream.” One looks around this country now, remembering those words, and that passion. A vast amount of love and faith and passion—and blood—have gone into the attempt to transform and liberate this nation. To look around this country today is enough to make prophets and angels weep, and certainly, the children’s teeth are set on edge. This is not the land of the free, is only very unwilling and sporadically the home of the brave, and all that can be said for the bulk of our politicians is that, if they are no worse than they were, they are certainly no better.

I want us to remember James Baldwin today as a way of honoring activism on this 60th-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. On this 30th–year anniversary of his death in December 1987. And, on this 3rd anniversary of the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Lest we forget. But more personally, I want to share with you that for me James Baldwin is important for another reason. To me, he is the also the “father” of modern black film studies—though that’s NOT how he would have described himself. Nonetheless, it’s partially because of Baldwin that I am a film scholar rather than a filmmaker.

Many of you know, he was a passionate voice for justice in mid-twentieth century America. What you may not know is that he was also uniquely skilled at describing the contradictory position of black spectatorship and black stardom in American cinema. Nowhere is this insight more evident than in his book The Devil Finds Work. In it, he the wrote words I drew upon to interview Audra McDonald last spring for MODFEST. I’m referring to the section in which he wrote: “It is scarcely possible to think of a black American actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been challenged to deliver the best that is in him.”

Published in 1976, the book collected his thoughts about the effects of Hollywood movies on American culture. It was a landmark essay for many reasons but chiefly because it was the first study to take African American representation in movies seriously. Well-received at the time of its publication, The Atlantic referred to The Devil Finds Work as “the most powerful piece of film criticism ever.” His essay on race, America, and cinema, wrote one journalist, “movingly demonstrates that analysis of art can be art itself.”

When I was a graduate student at the Tisch School of the Arts, combing through theories of the cinematic apparatus and searching for a dissertation topic, Baldwin’s work was one of the only places I could find scholarship that related to me as a film student. Sure…feminists like bell hooks had been writing about “intersectionality” since the 1980s. But Baldwin was one of the first people to address the intersection of race, gender, class, sexuality, and cinematic spectatorship—not to mention, placing it in historical perspective.

Growing up—as he did—on a diet of American popular culture that included movies of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Baldwin enjoyed the beauty and technical expertise of mainstream American cinema. As he matured and developed political consciousness, however, he didn’t just understand the logic and semantics of classical Hollywood, he grasped the entertainment industry’s ideological project. With the turn of a phrase he could delineate, or “throw shade,” at the way dominant cinema and television disguised the ugliness of genocide with the beauty of landscape (as in the Western), transformed reality into myth, or suppressed truth with cinematic illusion. Without need of Freud or Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, or Laura Mulvey, Baldwin testified to the way visual pleasure and narrative cinema structured the absence of women, people of color, queer subjectivities and even gave white heterosexual men an unrealistic model of masculinity.

I was particularly struck by his work on black stars like Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Diana Sands or Ruby Dee, which later informed my work.

“The industry is compelled,” wrote Baldwin, “given the way it was built to present to American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life…To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality.” How prophetic were his words, which came decades before—and weren’t even referring to—Reality Television or cable news?

Reading and teaching Baldwin’s essays in my “African American Cinema” course, or showing students documentaries about him—like Raoul Peck’s 2016 film (I am Not Your Negro), or Vassar graduate Karen Thorsen’s 1989 film (James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket)—I am continually reminded he is like an ancestor or griot whose fiction and non-fiction commentary provided parables to liberate us from existential angst. Thorsen’s documentary is a compilation that chronicles the life and times of the author. Raoul Peck’s episodic film, by contrast, emphasizes particular writings and interviews that resonate with the politics of today. Both pictures—because they rely on existing footage—capture his charisma and indomitable spirit.

I have long admired, and sought to emulate, the way Baldwin never shied from oppositional viewpoints expressed by political adversaries. Nor did he lay them to waste with excessive hostility. He willingly debated conservative opinion in the Paris salons, Turkish bars, university halls or expatriate circles in which he encountered it. Take his Cambridge debate of William F. Buckley as a case in point. Or, his conversation with Dick Gregory at the West Indian Student Center in London. He cared deeply about liberating people from their biases because he knew that America is inherently a joint venture. All the while, “Jimmy” as he was called by Maya Angelou, held a special place in his heart for artists—with whom he closely identified.

Sidney Poitier was one artist Baldwin cared about tremendously. They were friends. They supported each other. Jimmy wrote about Sidney’s career critically and compassionately. He recognized the institutional racism Poitier faced being one of the first, black male crossover stars. I have been a student of Poitier’s career partially because of Baldwin’s writing. I introduce Vassar students to Poitier by saying: imagine a time before there was a Samuel L. Jackson, before Will Smith; before there was an Idris Elba; and even before there was a Denzel Washington. Sidney Poitier paved the road left by Paul Robeson. And, if you read Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott’s New York Times article: “How the Movies Made a President,” you’ll have some sense of how important Poitier was in the 1960s. Particularly in 1967 when—after the release of To Sir With Love, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, he was the number one box office star.

Poitier possessed tremendous talent. But it went under-utilized. Nowhere was this more evident than in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, (starring Poitier, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Houghton). In it, Poitier plays Dr. John Prentice, a sophisticated black doctor brought home to meet the upper class parents of his white fiancé on the heels of their engagement to be married. Unbeknownst to his fiancé’s parents, he’s African American. So, the movie is a racial “coming out” story—with many of the problems and trappings such narratives often entail.

Reflecting on Poitier’s work in Hollywood, Baldwin put it best by saying: “I can’t pretend that movie meant anything to me. It seemed a glib, good-natured comedy in which a lot of able people were being wasted. But I told myself this movie wasn’t made for you. And, I really don’t know the people for whom it was made…I also thought that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner might prove to be a milestone, because it is really quiet impossible to go any farther in that direction.”

Conclusion: Transformation is not Necessarily Progress

Fifty years later, comedian Jordan Peele reached another milestone (cinematically speaking) by releasing Get Out a horror-satire spin on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—rendered for the post-Obama age. Produced by Vassar graduate Jason Blum through his company Blumhouse Productions, Peele’s movie has been a critical and commercial success because it’s not only entertaining, it resonates with the zeitgeist. Clearly, Jordan Peele and Jason Blum were a dream team. Thanks to Blum’s prompting, they crafted an ending to the film that helps transform and renew the horror genre.

A tongue-in-cheek thriller, Get Out is about Chris Washington, a young black New York photographer and his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, as they take a weekend trip to meet Rose’s parents: Dean, a neurosurgeon and Missy a psychiatrist-hypnotherapist. Initially, Chris is apprehensive and overly sensitive about how her parents will react to their healthy, monogamous, relationship. Eventually, we learn his apprehensions, and radar for micro-aggressions, might not be in his head. The movie is a riff on the Joseph Heller quip: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

I enjoyed Get Out, finding the commentary frighteningly accurate. In some ways, it does for commercial cinema what James Baldwin’s writings (or Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark) did for literature. It moves us beyond the existential crisis that our institutions (i.e., mainstream cinema) will never change, will never incorporate us, or speak our truth. Transformation in popular culture, in law, in politics, in science, and in society—even in every one of us, is happening and does happen.

I recently gave an interview to Off-Screen Magazine, an online publication. The interviewer asked me about the progress made by women directors in the film industry. He mentioned artists Ava DuVernay, Gina Price-Bythewood, Dee Rees, Julie Dash. He mentioned the work of Andrea Arnold, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Debra Granik, and Mira Nair. He wanted to know my assessment of “women in film.” Wasn’t I happy, he asked, that there are so many more women directors?

While there may be more women directors working today, let me not be mistaken as saying transformation is the same thing as progress. There is still unequal opportunity for women (of any color) in front of, or behind, the camera. But equally important as the number of women working in the industry is how women are depicted in popular culture generally. This is an area—like the depiction of all underrepresented groups—where there’s much room for improvement. Baldwin was skeptical about the notion of progress. But he was certain about the creative process and the role of artists.

“The precise role of the artist [in the creative process] is to illuminate the darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

So, where does all this leave us today? The work of those like Baldwin underscores the importance of being well-prepared to do our part to understand and shape our society. What we do at Vassar (whether we are students, faculty or staff) is in large measure about improving our analytical facility with what is transpiring around us. As we continue to grow, let us look to the examples of those like James Baldwin and strive to be present—in all of the ways Baldwin was present in his work, in his life, in his activism. And may that presence help us to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us. May it help us transform our communities and our world. Find what you love and allow your passion to transform the world around you.

American politics may not be healthy now but the work (and efforts) of scholars like Baldwin demonstrates that we can strive to be successful, to be great, and to transform in our own ways—even in difficult times.

Thank you.

[1] Eric Kelderman, “On Administrative Spending, Which Colleges Get the Most Bang for the Buck?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 2017

About the Speaker

Mia Mask, Professor of Film on the Mary Riepma Ross '32 Chair, received her PhD from New York University. Before coming to Vassar, she taught film studies at The College of Staten Island-CUNY, graduate media studies at The New School, and film history at Tufts University, where she was a Multicultural Teaching Fellow.

At Vassar College Ms. Mask teaches African American cinema, documentary film history, seminars on special topics such as the horror film, and auteurs like Spike Lee. She also teaches feminist film theory, African national cinemas, and various genre courses.