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The Weight of James Arthur Baldwin

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah travels to James Baldwin's home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, and examines the impact of a writer whose legacy cannot be erased.

It was an acquaintance’s idea to go there, to James Baldwin's house. He knew from living in Paris that Baldwin's old place, the house where he died, was near an elegant, renowned hotel in the Cote D'Azur region of France. He said both places were situated in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a medieval-era walled village that was scenic enough to warrant the visit. He said we could go to Baldwin's house and then walk up the road for drinks at the hotel bar where the writer used to drink in the evening. He said we would make a day of it, that I wouldn’t regret it.

For the first time in my life I was earning a bit of money from my writing, and since I was in London anyway for work and family obligations I decided to take the train over to Nice to meet him. But I remained apprehensive. Having even a tiny bit of disposable cash was very new and bizarre to me. It had been years since I had I bought myself truly new clothes, years since going to a cash machine to check my balance hadn’t warranted a sense of impending doom, and years since I hadn’t on occasion regretted even going to college, because it was increasingly evident that I would never be able to pay back my loans. There were many nights where I lay awake turning over in my mind the inevitable — that soon Sallie Mae or some faceless, cruel moneylender with a blues song–type name would take my mother’s home (she had co-signed for me) and thus render my family homeless. In my mind, three generations of progress would be undone by my vain commitment to tell stories about black people in a country where the black narrative was a quixotic notion at best. If I knew anything about being black in America it was that nothing was guaranteed, you couldn’t count on anything, and all that was certain for most of us was a black death. In my mind, a black death was a slow death, the accumulation of insults, injuries, neglect, second-rate health care, high blood pressure, and stress, no time for self-care, no time to sigh, and, in the end, the inevitable, the erasing of memory. I wanted to write against this, and so I was writing a history of the people I did not want to forget. And I loved it; nothing else mattered, because I was remembering, I was staving off death.

So I was in London when a check with four digits and one comma hit my account. It wasn’t much but to me it seemed enormous. I decided if I was going to spend any money, something I was reluctant, if not petrified, to do, at the very least I would feel best about spending it on James Baldwin. After all, my connection to him was an unspoken hoodoo-ish belief that he had been the high priest in charge of my prayer of being a black person who wanted to exist on books and words alone. It was a deification that was fostered years before during a publishing internship at a magazine. During the lonely week I had spent in the storeroom of the magazine’s editorial office organizing the archives from 1870 to 2005, I had found time to pray intensely at the altar of Baldwin. I had asked him to grant me endurance and enough fight so that I could exit that storeroom with my confidence intact. I told him what all writers chant to keep on, that I had a story to tell. But later, away from all of that, I quietly felt repelled by him — as if he were a home I had to leave to become my own. Instead, I spent years immersing myself in the books of Sergei Dovlatov, Vivian Gornick, Henry Dumas, Sei Shogonan, Madeline L’Engle, and Octavia Butler. Baldwin didn’t need my prayers — he had the praise of the entire world.

I still liked Baldwin but in a divested way, the way that anyone who writes and aspires to write well does. When people asked me my opinion on him I told them the truth: that Baldwin had set the stage for every American essayist who came after him with his 1955 essay collection Notes of a Native Son. One didn't need to worship him, or desire to emulate him, to know this and respect him for it. And yet, for me, there had always been something slightly off-putting about him — the strangely accented, ponderous way he spoke in the interviews I watched; the lofty, “theatrical” way in which he appeared in "Good Citizens," an essay by Joan Didion, as the bored, above-it-all figure that white people revered because he could stay collected. What I resented about Baldwin wasn’t even his fault. I didn’t like the way many men who only cared about Ali, Coltrane, and Obama praised him as the black authorial exception. I didn’t like how every essay about race cited him. How they felt comfortable, as he described it, talking to him (and about him) “absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation.”

James Baldwin and my grandfather were four years apart in age, but Baldwin, as he was taught to me, had escaped to France and avoided his birth-righted fate, whereas millions of black men his age had not. It seemed easy enough to fly in from France to protest and march, whereas it seemed straight hellish to live in the States with no ticket out. It seemed to me that Baldwin had written himself into the world — and I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of his allegiances to our interiors as an everyday, unglamorous slog.

So even now I have no idea why I went. Why I took that high-speed train past the sheep farms and the French countryside, past the brick villages and stone aqueducts, until the green hills faded and grew into Marseille's tall, dusky pink apartments and the bucolic steppes gave way to blue water where yachts and topless women with leather for skin were parked on the beaches.

It was on that train that I had time to consider the first time Baldwin had loomed large for me. It had occurred 10 years earlier, when I was accepted as an intern at one of the oldest magazines in the country. I had found out about the magazine only a few months before. A friend who let me borrow an issue made my introduction, but only after he spent almost 20 minutes questioning the quality of my high school education. How could I have never heard of such an influential magazine? I got rid of the friend and kept his copy.

During my train ride into Manhattan on my first day, I kept telling myself that I really had no reason to be nervous; after all, I had proven my capability not just once but twice. Because the internship was unpaid I had to decline my initial acceptance to instead take a summer job and then reapplied later. When I arrived at the magazine’s offices, the first thing I noticed was the stark futuristic whiteness. The entire place was a brilliant white, except for the tight, gray carpeting.

The senior and associate editors’ offices had sliding glass doors and the rest of the floor was divided into white-walled cubicles for the assistant editors and interns. The windows in the office looked out over the city, and through the filmy morning haze I could see the cobalt blue of one of the city’s bridges and the water tanks that spotted some of the city’s roofs. The setting, the height, and the spectacular view were not lost on me. I had never before had any real business in a skyscraper.

Each intern group consisted of four people; my group also included a recent Brown grad, a hippie-ish food writer from the West Coast, and a dapper Ivy League sort of mixed-race Southeast Asian descent. We spent the first part of the day learning our duties, which included finding statistics, assisting the editors with the magazine's features, fact-checking, and reading submissions. Throughout the day various editors stopped by and made introductions. Sometime after lunch the office manager came into our cubicle and told us she was cleaning out the communal fridge and that we were welcome to grab whatever was in it. Eager to scavenge a free midday snack, we decided to take her up on the offer. As we walked down the hall the Princeton grad joked that because he and I were the only brown folks around we should be careful about taking any food because they might say we were looting. I had forgotten about Hurricane Katrina, the tragedy of that week, during the day’s bustle, and somehow I had also allowed the fact that I am black to fade to the back of my thoughts, behind my stress and excitement. It was then that I was smacked with the realization that the walls weren’t the only unusually white entities in the office — the editorial staff was strangely all white as well.

Because we were interns, neophytes, we spent the first week getting acquainted with each other and the inner workings of the magazine. Sometime towards the end of my first week, a chatty senior editor approached me in the corridor. During the course of our conversation I was informed that I was (almost certainly) the first black person to ever intern at the magazine and that there had never been any black editors. I laughed it off awkwardly only because I had no idea of what to say. I was too shocked. At the time of my internship the magazine was more than 150 years old. It was a real Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner moment. Except that I, being a child of the '80s, had never watched the film in its entirety, I just knew it starred Sidney Poitier as a young, educated black man who goes to meet his white wife’s parents in the 1960s.

When my conversation with the talkative editor ended I walked back to my desk and decided to just forget about it. Besides, I reasoned, it was very possible that the editor was just absent-minded. I tried to forget it myself but I could not, and finally I casually asked another editor if it was true. He told me he thought there had been an Algerian-Italian girl many years ago, but he was not certain if she really "counted" as black. When I asked how that could be possible, I was told that the lack of diversity was due to the lack of applications from people of color. As awkward as these comments were, they were made in the spirit of oblivious commonwealth. It was office chatter meant to make me feel like one of the gang, but instead of comforting my concerns it made me feel like an absolute oddity.

On good days, being the first black intern meant doing my work quickly and sounding extra witty around the water cooler; it meant I was chipping away at the glass ceiling that seemed to top most of the literary world. But on bad days I gagged on my resentment and furiously wondered why I was selected. I became paranoid that I was merely a product of affirmative action, even though I knew wasn’t. I hadn't mentioned my race in either of my two accepted applications. Still, I never felt like I was actually good enough. And with my family and friends so proud of me, I felt like I could not burst their bubble with my insecurity and trepidation.

So when I was the only intern asked by a top editor to do physical labor and reorganize all of the old copies of the magazine in the freezing, dusty storeroom, I fretted in private. Was I asked because of my race or because that was merely one of my duties as the intern-at-large? There was no way to tell. I found myself most at ease with the other interns and the staff that did not work on the editorial side of the magazine: the security guards, the delivery guys, the office manager, and the folks at the front desk. Within them the United Nations was almost represented. With them, I did not have to worry that one word pronounced wrong or one reference not known would reflect not just poorly on me but also on any black person who might apply after me.

In 1965, James Baldwin was paid $350 for an essay that is now legend. 

I also didn’t have to worry about that in that storeroom. I vexingly realized three things spending a week in the back of that dismal room. That yes, I was the only intern asked to do manual labor, but I was surrounded by 150 years of the greatest American essays ever written, so I read them cover to cover. And I discovered that besides the physical archives and magazines stored there, the storeroom was also home to the old index card invoices that its writers used to file. In between my filing duties, I spent time searching those cards, and the one that was most precious to me was Baldwin's. In 1965, he was paid $350 for an essay that is now legend. The check went to his agent's office. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the faintly yellowed card except that its routineness suggested a kind of normalcy. It looped a great man back to the earth for me. And in that moment, Baldwin’s eminence was a gift. He had made it out of the storeroom. He had taken a steamer away from being driven mad from maltreatment. His excellence had moved him beyond the realm of physical labor. He had disentangled himself from being treated like someone who was worth-less or questioning his worth. And better yet, Baldwin was so good they wanted to preserve his memory. Baldwin joined the pantheon of black people who were from that instructional generation of civil rights fighters, and I would look at that card every day of my week down there.

What makes us want to run away? Or go searching for a life away from ours? The term "black refugees" applies most specifically to the black American men and women who escaped in 1812 to the British navy’s boats and were later taken to freedom in Nova Scotia and Trinidad, but don’t many of us feel like black refugees. Baldwin called these feelings, the sense of displacement and loss that many Black Americans ponder, the “heavy” questions, and heavy they are indeed. Sometime in early '50s, after being roughed up and harassed by the FBI, James Baldwin realized that while he “loved” his country, he “could not respect it.” He wrote that he “could not, upon my soul, be reconciled to my country as it was.” To survive he would have to find an exit. On the train to Baldwin’s house I thought more about that earlier generation and about the seemingly vast divide between Baldwin and my grandfather. They had very little in common, except they were of the same era, the same race, and were both fearless men, which in black America actually says a lot. Whereas Baldwin spent his life writing against a canon, writing himself into the canon, a black man recording the Homeric legend of his life himself, my grandfather simply wanted to live with dignity.

It must have been hard then to die the way my grandfather did. I imagine it is not the ending that he expected when he left Louisiana and moved to Watts — to a small, white house near 99th Street and Success Avenue. After his death, I went back to the house in Watts that he had been forced to return to, broke and burned out of his home, and gathered what almost 90 years of black life in America had amounted to for him: a notice saying that his insurance claim from the fire had been denied, two glazed clay bowls, and his hammer (he was a carpenter). My grandfather had worked hard but had made next to nothing. I took a picture of the wall that my grandfather built during his first month in LA. It was old, cracked, jagged, not pretty at all, but at the time, it was the best evidence I had that my grandfather had ever been here. And as I scattered his ashes near the Hollywood Park racetrack, because he loved horses and had always remained a country boy at heart, I realized that the dust in my hands was the entirety of my inheritance from him. And until recently, I used to carry that memory and his demand for optimism around like an amulet divested of its power, because I had no idea what to do with it. What Baldwin understood, and my grandfather preferred not to focus on, is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem.

From the outside, Baldwin’s house looks ethereal. The saltwater air from the Mediterranean acts like a delicate scrim over the heat and the horizon, and the dry, craggy yard is wide and long and tall with cypress trees. I had prepared for the day by watching clips of him in his gardens. I read about the medieval frescos that had once lined the dining room. I imagined the dinners he had hosted for Josephine Baker and Beauford Delaney under a trellis of creeping vines and grape arbors. I imagined a house full of books and life.

Scenes from James Baldwin's home in the south of France.

I fell in love with Baldwin all over again in France. There I found out that Baldwin didn’t go to France because he was full of naïve, empty admiration for Europe; as he once said in an interview: “If I were twenty-four now, I don’t know if and where I would go. I don’t know if I would go to France, I might go to Africa. You must remember when I was twenty-four there was really no Africa to go to, except Liberia. Now, though, a kid now . . . well, you see, something has happened which no one has really noticed, but it’s very important: Europe is no longer a frame of reference, a standard-bearer, the classic model for literature and for civilization. It’s not the measuring stick. There are other standards in the world.”

Baldwin left the States for the primary reason that all emigrants do — because anywhere seems better than home. This freedom-seeking gay man, who deeply loved his sisters and brothers — biological and metaphorical — never left them at all. In France, I saw that Baldwin didn’t live the life of a wealthy man, but he did live the life of man who wanted to travel, to erect an estate of his own design, and write as an outsider, alone in silence. He had preserved himself.

Baldwin left the States for the primary reason that all emigrants do — because anywhere seems better than home.

Decades after Baldwin’s death in 1987, what I found left behind in his house was something similar to what I saw as we waded through my grandfather’s house after it had burned down. In both houses, I found mail strewn in dirt piles in rooms that no longer had doors or windowpanes, and entryways nailed over to prevent trespassers like us. In each case, someone had clearly forced entry in order to drink beer. In Baldwin’s house, the scattered, empty beer cans were recent additions, as were the construction postings from a company tasked with tearing it down. So that nothing would remain. No remembrance of the past. In both places there was not even the sense that a great man had once lived there.

James Baldwin lived in his house for more than 25 years, and all that was left were half a dozen pink teacups and turquoise saucers buried by the house’s rear wall, a chipped fresco on a crumbling wall, and orange trees that were heavy with fruit bitter and sharp to the taste. We see Baldwin’s name in connection to the present condition more often than we see Faulkner’s, Whitman’s, or Thoreau’s. But we can visit the houses and places where they lived and imagine how their geography shaped them and our collective vocabulary. By next year, Baldwin’s house will just be another private memory for those who knew it.

I do not know if I will ever see his house again. If I will be able to pull sour oranges from his trees and wonder if they were so bitter when he lived there. But I do know that Baldwin died a black death.

For a while when I came back to the States, I started to send strange, desperate emails to people who knew him that read:

For the last two days, I've basically found myself frantically, maniacally looking for everything that I could find about Baldwin's life there. To be honest, I'm not at all sure what I am looking for, but when I walked up that steep little hill, past the orange and cypress trees out onto the main road, and looked back at his house I just felt a compulsion to start asking people who knew him about his life in that house. The compound is almost gone, as they are in the process of demolishing it and yet something about it and him seemed to still be very much there.

Baldwin once wrote, “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.”

I sent those notes — feeling as hopeless as I sounded — because I wanted to save that building. I did not want it and him to vanish into the terrifying darkness. Because I was scared that no one else would ever be able to see that Baldwin had a rainbow kitchen — an orange sink and purple shelves — in his guesthouse. I wanted someone else to wonder what he ate from this kitchen, who stayed in this annex of his estate, who he loved, whether his love felt free in this kitchen, in this house where two men could embrace in private behind the ramparts of his home in another country. I wanted someone else to understand the private black language found in one of Baldwin’s last conversations with his brother David. Frail, sick, and being carried to his deathbed in his brother’s arms, what the world thought of him might as well have been an ocean away. In that moment, Baldwin didn’t refer to French poets, or to the cathedrals of his genius, he instead returned to a popular song. He loved music, and he told his brother: So it is true what they say — he is my brother and he’s not heavy.

There is no great mystery behind why Baldwin’s house isn’t treated like Anna and Sigmund Freud’s in London or rebuilt and replicated like Dante Alighieri’s in Florence. “We lost the house because supposedly there was no way to prove that it was his,” his niece Kali-Ma Morrison tells me with a slight edge in her voice. “People contested his right to ownership in the French Supreme Court and after 10 years of fighting to save it, we lost.”

For months, I had wanted to know about the women who read as almost mythical in Baldwin’s life and work, the siblings and nieces who are tasked with being the legal keepers of his legacy. I was also curious because in the strange early hours of the morning just before the bakeries open and the fog lifts herself from the mountains, I sat in a village in the South of France and watched Baldwin defend our future as black women on The Dick Cavett Show in 1968. My god, how I loved his exasperation and anger as he told primetime television, "I don't know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know that the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don't know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now: This is the evidence. And you want me to make an act of faith — risking myself, my life, my woman, my sister, my children — on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen?" In 1968, James Baldwin was already asking, What is any movement without all of us? What is a black conversation that divides our concerns?

Kali-Ma — Baldwin’s niece — is in her late twenties. She is a visual artist and poet, and although she has piercings and tattoos, she looks like the sort of young woman who once appeared in tintype photographs — patient, timeless, and very beautiful in an intoxicatingly demure way. Her grandmother Gloria is Baldwin’s sister, and handles her brother’s estate. Her other grandmother is Toni Morrison. Kali-Ma hands me a cup of green tea, reaches down to stroke her purring cat, who has been clawing her ankles for attention, and then goes over to a bookcase that sags with books and pulls out some of her uncle’s belongings that she retrieved from Saint-Paul-de-Vence. She hands me a faded copy of his book A Dialogue (written with with Nikki Giovanni), his copies of Freedomways magazine (including one with Lorraine Hansberry on the cover), and a small brass plaque (engraved in French) awarded to him for his commitment to human rights.

We are both very quiet. I trace the Greek severe-style angel on the award with my finger until she shrugs and says, “I know I should probably have this stuff locked away, or covered in laminate, but I like him out here, you know, being here with me and mixed in with the other books. Alive.” I came to her place to take a picture of Baldwin’s typewriter. This is what I told her. But I think I also came because I wanted to see someone who is his flesh and blood. I wanted to see that he was really theirs, their Uncle Jimmy. Because if he was theirs, the logic followed, then he was also ours.

Baldwin artifacts

Baldwin’s people have an old-world, sophisticated manner. They offer you three types of tea, whiskey, and their time. They’re patient and generous. They never ask me what I’m doing there. They are tolerant of my desire to find the quiet bibliography that he left behind in the small notations, brushes, and ephemera of his life. Annotations I believed when taken together would tell a private story of his battles and alienations as a gay black man who was born into poverty as the eldest in a solar system of siblings (there were nine of them), but who was also singularly rich, with an agile mind, a louche, lithe body, and a long-eyed gaze.

In the 21st century, black history must shirk any oversimplification. What I unfortunately realized late in the game was that I had allowed myself to understand Baldwin through a series of abstractions, one that was principally based upon how strangers, outsiders, and gatekeepers had interpreted his life. In their telling, I had never heard how Baldwin had felt like he could make peace with his old friend Richard Wright, but it would take a big bottle of booze and a whole night of talking in that garden in Saint-Paul. They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith. Or how he had met with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to press the government about its callous response to the civil rights movement. No one had ever told me to study with care the Harlem in the way that he could keep a cigarette dangling from his lips, just so, balanced between a Blood's deep blues and a 125th Street cool.

They never told me just how much Baldwin loved his records — spirituals and Bessie Smith. 

“The American triumph—in which the American tragedy has always been implicit—was to make Black people despise themselves,” Baldwin wrote in a forward to Angela Davis’s book If They Come in the Morning. He signed the letter Brother Jimmy and addressed Angela Davis as Sister Angela. When I was younger, the way Baldwin explained the conditions of “Negroes” to others made me question his devotion, but as I held his copy of Davis’s book in my hands and re-read those words, it was evident that America had never triumphed over James Baldwin.

One afternoon, Trevor Baldwin, Wilmer "Lover" Baldwin’s son (the younger brother of the nephew addressed in Baldwin’s "Letter to My Nephew"), tells me about “Uncle Jimmy’s” visits back to the States, when he would return to the house that he had purchased for his mother on 71st Street. Trevor is a down-to-earth, forthright Morehouse man, a Harlem man, and he recalls what both he and his father admired most about Uncle Jimmy. “He walked with a certain sense of manhood,” Trevor told me. “You could easily see he was gay but [he] walked with his chest out and he’d cut you with his tongue.”

“Which is to say he had self-pride?” I asked.

“Yes!" Trevor said. “He had to move to Europe because he was seriously worried that he was going to kill somebody."

Trevor always knew that Uncle Jimmy was in town because suddenly his grandmother’s house would swell with visitors. “Uncle Jimmy,” he laughed, “brought everybody to her, Maya (Angelou) included, and Toni, and said, ‘Here’s something else you don’t need, but I got another sister. You got another child.’

"He was the man of the house. He was the patriarch of us all.”

I like this image of Baldwin, it is both vanguard and conventional, but I also enjoy the way Kali-Ma shudders when I ask her if her uncle was a patriarch. Of his sisters? His mother? No, she says.

She looks for a word to describe what he was. I try to help. We are both writers, but we could not find a single word to describe this man who told his adopted sisters that they had to write down their stories and later pragmatically assisted them in their endeavors, who had best friends in many countries in all professions, and who taught his older brother and young nephews a rare, lasting lesson in bravery — that we must be brilliant and big enough to be ourselves. To have pink teacups and brown typewriters. Baldwin defined what made him a great writer on his own terms. He also ensured that his success was not dependent on his silences. He taught us all that the greatest black art demands that there be no “rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty” or our power. Some people will consider this vain, but isn’t this what all good warriors have always done: venerating, salvaging, and celebrating ourselves in between battles? Is this not our real inheritance?

I have spent months thinking about something his former agent’s granddaughter Eliza Mills revealed to me after she found out that I had been to his home in France. “James Baldwin used to play dodgeball with my dad and his friends. And he'd stay up and out all night and go to bed when my dad and his sister were going to school in the morning. My grandfather helped sell a couple of his books and would read/edit things. I think he was writing The Fire Next Time while he lived there. I've seen a note or two that he wrote to my grandfather in the books he left at their house.”

Breathless at the idea of all of this, I asked her if she was for real or kidding me.

“Yeah,” she replied, incredulous to my doubt. “One little inscription is written in rainbow ink and half in French.”

Last week, when I got back from seeing his brown typewriter, I wrote down the word "joy" and underlined it three times, like it was an obligation, a chore, something that I would have to find, if not fight for. I did this because isn’t the more intimate, tenebrous story the one where we recognize each other not only in our despair but also in our joy? In your rainbow ink and your sleeplessness nights, in your demands and, in your nieces and nephews who love you like a black god. I will find you — in the enthusiasms of our people’s style, our verve and our wit, the way you slouched in your seat and crossed your legs, in the ways that they will misunderstand you but we will always know you, in the abridgments that we will make to history, changing it forever.

Because I am telling this now, writing it all down, I am finding time to regard memory and death differently. I’m holding them up in the light and searching them, inspecting them, as they are not as what I want them to be. On that hill, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, I wanted to alter fate, and preserve things. But why? He did not need me — Baldwin seemed to have prepared himself well for his black death, his mortality, and even better, his immortality. Indeed, he bested all of them, because he wrote it all down — both on the page and in his beautiful gestures.

And this is how his memory abides. On the scent of wild lavender like the kind in his yard, in the mouths of a new generation that once again feels compelled to march in the streets of Harlem, Ferguson, and Baltimore. What Baldwin knew is that he left no false heirs, he left spares, and that is why we carry him with us. So now when people ask me about James Baldwin, I tell them another truth: He is my brother, he ain’t heavy.

This piece is drawn from the forthcoming anthology The Fire This Time, which is out from Scribner on Aug. 1, 2016.