Editor’s Note: This is the first of a four-part interview with Dr. Greg Garrett, who will be a guest on the Good Faith Weekly podcast on Friday, March 15. The interview has been minimally edited for conciseness. (Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here and Part 4 here.) 

Greg Garrett’s latest book, “The Gospel According to James Baldwin: What America’s Great Prophet Can Teach Us about Life, Love, and Identity,” offers the words of the child preacher turned 20th-century American prophet as good news for humanity. I recently had the pleasure of asking Greg a few questions. We began with the pilgrimage of writing, James Baldwin as a contrasting conversation partner and the social fiction of white supremacy. 

Starlette: Writing as a pilgrimage, why was it important for you to walk in James Baldwin’s footsteps? 

Greg: I acknowledge early on that James Baldwin’s life experience might seem different from my own, but the truth is that his life and his journey tell me a lot of things about mine: He was an artist, a writer who sought to be a faithful witness, a person seeking some kind of faith, a person searching for a place to belong and people to love. 

I also value those things and want to learn to do them better. In Canterbury Cathedral, for hundreds of years, pilgrims have come to see the place where Thomas Becket was struck down at prayer. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, there’s a stone marker where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And there are blessed places in New York City and Harlem and Paris and Switzerland where James Baldwin walked and wrote, drank and loved. 

I wanted to visit as many of them as I could, to walk in his footsteps for the same reason any pilgrim visits holy sites: because someone holy once stood there, and because I wanted to pay attention to how God might still be moving there in my own life. This book was not an assignment; it was a quest, and I knew that I would be transformed in some way as I followed in Mr. Baldwin’s steps.

Starlette: You refer to him as “Blessed St. James of Harlem, patron saint of the journey”? Where did he take you during this writing process?

Greg: I’m not a traditional scholar, as any of my Baylor colleagues could tell you. In my nonfiction life, I’m a person who writes about things I want to understand better. 

For some time now, I’ve mostly been writing, thinking, and preaching about race and justice and against white supremacy, and Baldwin kept speaking into that work, as of course he would. But when I agreed to write this book, I quickly understood that Mr. Baldwin had a world of things to teach us. 

Baldwin encouraged me to think about the stories we tell and why some move us more deeply than others. He encouraged me to think about what a useable faith looks like. 

In short, Baldwin told me, “We’re going to go on a human journey,” because he was clear in his own work as an artist and critic that our entire humanity has to be acknowledged, that we can’t be limited to a set of descriptors or understood only through one lens. Baldwin opened himself up to life. On his best days, he loved deeply and without fear, and in the process, he challenged me—and I hope my readers—to go on that same journey. 

Starlette: You write in “On Pilgrimage, Seeking St. James,” “In his trenchant but thoughtful criticism, I discovered a necessary counterpoint to my own narrow Anglo angle of vision, gained insights I could never have reached through my own straight white middle- class filters, and was inspired to continue arguing that art and culture can and must be read not just critically but also in light of how they represent, distort and transform our own lives.” Expound on James Baldwin as a contrasting conversation partner and the need for his prophetically contradicting voice in a country founded on the social fiction of white supremacy.

Greg: This is a simple example, but I’d been teaching “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for some years before I read Baldwin’s “The Devil Finds Work” and his criticisms of the role Sidney Poitier had to try to bring to life in that film. From my liberal white perspective, I wanted to celebrate what Sidney Poitier represented: an intelligent, handsome, sexy Black man in an industry where people of color were rarely featured onscreen. 

But Baldwin’s take offered me a powerful corrective: Yes, Poitier did the best he could with the role given him by a white writer and white director, but in calling him “The Wonder Doctor,” Baldwin was pointing out how unrealistic Poitier’s character was, how exceptional he had to be to satisfy a white audience. As my friend Kelly Brown Douglas asked me the night we showed “Guess” in the National Cathedral: “Why did a white audience need this?”

That one example of a Black corrective vision is one of many in a lifetime of work where James Baldwin holds up a mirror to people who look like me or strips away the fictions that sustain us. When Baldwin tells his nephew James about the ignorance and innocence of white Americans, he also tells him our innocence is morally repugnant. Baldwin’s work as critic and as artist is about the full humanity we all possess. It is a call to recognize that commonality, but it’s also, as you note, a vital contradicting voice saying, “No, you aren’t telling the truth here.”

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