An Open Letter to Philanthropists

December 25, 2017

Dear major donors, social entrepreneurs and progressive philanthropists,

 

Most of you reading this will be white. Thanks in large measure to James Baldwin, we now understand that the very idea of whiteness is corrupt. Here on the holiday corrupted perhaps most of all by whiteness, I'd like to extend an invitation to white donors of wealth to make a gift to humanity: a down payment to purchase the home of a black american icon.

 

I address this letter to white philanthropists specifically, because after more than a year of trying, our organization has failed to enlist the support of the black philanthropic community in our efforts to save James Baldwin's home from its current fate as a luxury apartment complex. And here we are in the final hour: bulldozers are clearing the land around what remains of his 17th century house, work has begun on the parking lot to be laid precisely where his desk once stood, and the current owner of the property won't negotiate with us until we bring serious backers to the table. 

 

 

Probably it will take around 12 to 15 million dollars to realize Baldwin's dream of creating a writer's colony (like MacDowell and Yaddo) at his home. We'll need to purchase the property, restore it to its former glory, and establish a permanent endowment. For now, however, a few million dollars as a "down payment" in an escrow account will demonstrate to the property's corporate owners that we're financed and ready.

 

But first: why hasn't our project succeeded in attracting black philanthropic dollars? The answer is largely because the James Baldwin's estate hasn't endorsed our efforts. After nearly two years of trying, it has proven impossible to raise money from black philanthropists without this blessing.  It isn't as though we haven't tried: the list of famous and/or wealthy black americans who know what is happening here and who have turned quietly away is revelatory to say the least.

 

Why won't the Estate give its blessing? Its sole executor, James Baldwin's sister, hasn't explained her decision. Ours is not the first attempt to save this house: in the past 20 years since the Estate lost its battle in the French courts for ownership of the property, others have made the effort as well. None have succeeded in gaining the Estate's support. Those who came before us have either accepted the estate's decision or, like us, failed to surmount the barrier of their non-endorsement. 

 

Certainly our failure to attract black donors has much to do with the accusations of cultural misrepresentation against this project and against me, specifically. In this context, supporting our effort becomes a complicated gesture. 

 

But why is Raoul Peck, the director of I Am Not Your Negro, blocking our efforts? For a year and a half, he's been participating in a quiet smear campaign against our project and warning key supporters away from me personally. I've responded with silence, fueled by white guilt and confusion. But no longer will I shut up as a powerful and famous man whom I've never met accuses me of fraud, based on no evidence at all. All of this despite word we're getting from our own Baldwin family intermediaries, who inform us that key members of the family are in fact not opposed to our work and have no plans to stand in our way. One family member told the New York Times she'd consider supporting a restoration effort if the right donors appeared.
 
And, finally, the central question: What makes me think any halfway aware  philanthropist, white or otherwise, would be willing to trespass on what appears from all evidence to be a cultural decision made by the black american community? Wouldn't such a gesture constute cultural appropriation of the worst possible sort?

 

Would it? Wouldn't it also advance the conversation about representation in a Baldwinesque atmosphere of goodwill and h