Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Memoriam: James A. Emanuel (1921-2013)

James A. Emanuel
Photo credit:

On September 28, 2013, James Emanuel left this world to meet his maker. An acclaimed poet, scholar, critic, and the last of the great Harlem Renaissance writers, he was 92 years old. He died at Hôpital Léopold Bellan in the 14th arrondissement, five days after he suffered a massive stroke at his Montparnasse apartment.

James' nephew, Jim Smith, is a native of Denver, Colorado and the son of James' sister Gladys. James was the last living relative that Jim had on his mother's side of the family. Jim has shared photos and information about his uncle that I am pleased and privileged to present here:

The only way I could spend time with my uncle was to meet him in different places outside the US. Some of the places we gathered were in Mexico City, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Amsterdam, Belgium and Frankfort just to name a few.

Jim Smith, Godelieve Simons, and James Emanuel at La Petite Rotonde
Photo courtesy of Jim Smith

Because of American racism and the death of my cousin (his son), he would never set foot again on U.S. soil. He writes about this in his book The Force and the Reckoning. Have your readers check it out. [It is] A book that deserves to be heard around the world. He [James] was The Elder, “the oldest living major African-American poet” and THE most neglected published poet of the 20th century!!

He was a fascinating/unforgettable person. Having had the privilege to hold many conversations with him and just being in his presence was overwhelming at times. He was a man of his word and said what he meant and meant what he said. As the old saying goes, a man is only as good as his word and he was a great man.

Chansse Evans (left), James Emanuel, and Marie-France Plissard (right, seated)
2005 poetry reading
Photo courtesy of Jim Smith

I last saw James at the 3rd Annual Brothers Spring Gala and 1st Annual Tannie Awards on May 31st. That evening, he was honored with the first Tannie Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature and Writers.

Sulaiman Hakim and James Emanuel at The Brothers Gala
© SAMBG MYA Photography - Paris

James Emanuel with his Tannie Award
© SAMBG MYA Photography - Paris

James Emanuel speaking after accepting Tannie Award
© SAMBG MYA Photography - Paris

James Emanuel
© SAMBG MYA Photography - Paris

Another Tannie Award winner, writer Jake Lamar, was a dear friend of James.

Jake paid tribute to James at a party for James' 90th birthday in 2011, held at the home of Jim Haynes. He has graciously provided the text of that tribute for us here:

Unknown person, James Emanuel, Jake Lamar and Jim Haynes
at the 2003 Shakespeare and Company tribute to Ted Joans
© Discover Paris!

December 1993. I had been living in Paris for only a few weeks when I met the great Beat poet Ted Joans at a reading at the Tea and Tattered Pages Bookshop. Ted told me to come by the Café Le Rouquet the next day. I didn't realize at the time that Ted showed up at that café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, between four and six o'clock and, basically, held court at a corner table on the terrace.

When I arrived at Le Rouquet on a gray, drizzly Wednesday afternoon, I found Ted sitting with two other African-American men. One, a gravel-voiced fellow sporting a green fedora, was introduced to me as Hart Leroy Bibbs. The third man exuded elegance and intelligence. I'd heard of him before: James Emanuel. While Ted Joans had the switched-on energy of the eternal hipster and Leroy Bibbs seemed the very essence of cool, James had an aura of dignity and wisdom about him. Knowing these three men would change my life. They opened my mind to all sorts of possibilities, showed me how a black artist could thrive: traveling, exploring, always learning and, of course, getting the work done.

That first day at Le Rouquet, I'd brought along my first book, Bourgeois Blues. Ted turned to the epigraph, saw that it was from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "Play the game, but don't believe in it," Ted began to read. Then, to my utter astonishment, James Emanuel, who was not looking at the book, quoted the rest of the passage from memory. "That much you owe yourself," James said in his silken baritone. "Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game but play it your own way---part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy."

Café Le Rouquet
© Discover Paris!

A strange and powerful feeling came over me. I was thirty-two years old and had felt, up until then, very isolated in my situation as an African-American author. Suddenly, listening to James recite Ellison, I felt that I had somehow found my true place, my real community, right there at that café table. I was honored when, in February 1994, Ted, James and Leroy invited me to join them in two readings in celebration of Langston Hughes, first at Shakespeare and Co., later at the Sorbonne. And when the three of them showed up at my first solo reading in Paris the following month, I was touched beyond words.

I could go on and on about James's writing, the brilliance and profound depth of feeling in his work. But let me concentrate on one particular set of poems, the Jazz Haiku. There is nothing else like them, that I know of, in world literature. Using the strict Japanese form to evoke such freeform music was, in itself, a stroke of genius. But what is truly magnificent is the way James makes you hear the artists he writes about. I cannot grasp by what alchemy James manages to evoke, in words, the sound of Miles Davis's trumpet, John Coltrane's saxophone, Billie Holiday's voice. The haikus are imbued with the combination of discipline and play, improvisation and exactitude, inspiration and perspiration that defines the music James so beautifully describes. This is the work of a master artist. It has been one of the great privileges of my life to know him.

Gary Lee Kraut, creator of the blog France Revisited, published a profile on James in 2011 on the occasion of James' 90th birthday. This exquisite, exclusive article was written by Janet Halstrand. It features several photos of James in his Montparnasse apartment. Read it here:

James A. Emanuel, a Great American Poet, Turns 90 in Paris

Joseph Langley captured James on video in 2011. To my knowledge, it is the last representation of James on camera:

James Emanuel - A Conversation with James Emanuel

Funeral services are to be held at Père Lachaise cemetery on Friday, October 4th at 10 A.M.

Goodbye and God bless, James. We will miss you.


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Unknown said...

Thank you for the lovely commemoration for James Emanuel, Monique. Joanne and I had the pleasure of hearing him read at the American Library and elsewhere, an exceptionally talented and sensitive poet and a very dear man. Joanne is in Canada. I'll be going there next week. I have copied this piece and will bring it to her. I wish I could go to the funeral tomorrow, but I have a commitment I can't break. Best, David Burke

About Beauford Delaney said...

It was my pleasure and privilege to write this, David. Give my best to Joanne.

Unknown said...

Beau- I posted the above on JAE's death. I was told by Mare-France he died on the 28th. Is your info correct? I also was in touch w Jean Migrenne, who attended the services.

About Beauford Delaney said...

Thank you for your comment. I spoke with Marie-France today at the interment and she confirms the date as being September 28th. This has been corrected.