Baldwin, James Arthur
BALDWIN, James Arthur
(b. 2 August 1924 in New York City; d. 1 December 1987 in Saint-Paul de Vence, France), essayist, social critic, playwright, novelist, and activist who shaped public debate on justice and American democracy in the 1960s. His polemical writings on racial discrimination, gay consciousness, personal alienation, and black liberation fused art and activism, anticipated the social challenges the United States would come to face, and raised the bar on the nation's call to conscience.
Raised by his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, a domestic worker, and his stepfather, David Baldwin, Sr., a clergyman and factory worker, Baldwin was the oldest of nine children and the only one born out of wedlock. His mother was single at the time of his birth and married his stepfather in 1927, when Baldwin was three years old. He never knew his biological father. His illegitimacy was the first in a long line of obstacles that Baldwin would endure in his life. He survived the unforgiving conditions of his childhood (the Great Depression, malnutrition, an overbearing and mentally deteriorating stepfather, and the oppression of African Americans) by finding validation outside his home, first through education and then in the black church, which he viewed as a separate experience from white Christianity.
Baldwin's voracious appetite for books and penchant for ideas distinguished him academically at an early age. He attended Public School 24 and then Frederick Douglass Middle School. Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, one of the city's elite institutions, eventually selected him to attend, and Baldwin graduated in 1942. His teachers were a unique gathering of New York's most progressive literary, educational, and activist minds. Countee Cullen, who produced one of the great poems of the Harlem Renaissance period, "Yet, Do I Marvel," served as instructor and mentor for the young Baldwin during his years at Douglass Middle School. Cullen encouraged Baldwin's writing as a way for him to organize the world and discover himself. Outside approval greatly mattered to the gangly youngster, who was becoming increasingly uncertain about his sexuality as he matured.
Baldwin grew up in Harlem during the waning years of its literary Renaissance. Premised upon the philosopher Alain Locke's contention that the twentieth century witnessed a new and gifted generation of African Americans (termed the New Negro), the Harlem Renaissance produced intellectuals who considered literature and the arts as the vehicle for social change. Although Baldwin had marginal ties to the literati of the Renaissance, he may have been their most penetrating and uncompromising heir.
Even in the years of this literary flowering, Harlem's prospects were narrow for Baldwin. Moreover, he was growing increasingly estranged from his stepfather. During the 1930s, David Baldwin fell deeply into paranoia and depression, which strained all aspects of their relationship Small differences of opinion degenerated into prodigious battles of will. The stress compelled Baldwin to become a boy preacher in the Pentecostal Mount Calvary Church at the age of fourteen. His escape to religion foreshadowed future defections when Baldwin could not manage the crises in his life. Avoidance was both a defense mechanism and a vital step on his path to becoming a writer. In 1943 the urge forced him out of his home, away from the church, and into a brief stint as a bohemian in Greenwich Village. Baldwin left the United States altogether for Paris, France, in 1948.
The search to discover himself, beyond his domineering stepfather, outside his race, and without the questions of his sexuality led Baldwin to become an expatriate. In Paris, Baldwin launched his publishing career in earnest, producing a polemical essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), and then a series of pathbreaking novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and the monumental Giovanni's Room (1956). By 1960 many recognized Baldwin as the premier black writer of his time. His writings anticipated the tone, content, and emotion of the civil rights movement in the United States. Race conflict pervaded his writings in the 1950s, a consequence of his own identity crises and his journalistic assignments in the American South. Recording the lives of southerners brought Baldwin in contact with the spiritual figurehead of the civil rights movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It also introduced him to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Writing about race relations presented Baldwin with a distinct philosophic dilemma. He had proclaimed in "Everybody's Protest Novel" that writers should not subscribe to ideology, nor should they write for propaganda, a stance that separated him in many ways from most African-American writers since the Harlem Renaissance. Nevertheless, Baldwin felt compelled to defend his expatriate status against charges that he had abandoned America to live a raceless existence in Europe. Although they were never resolved, these concerns made the 1960s the most productive and publicly visible period of his life. Moreover, the decade catapulted Baldwin into the role he himself disparaged, that of an antagonist for race consciousness and equal rights in America.
Baldwin's first writing of the 1960s was a collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961). The essays were his most conscious meditations on the question of race to that date, written with a touch of irony reminiscent of the writer Ralph Ellison (in his Invisible Man), which attributed black invisibility to white intransigence. In 1962 Baldwin published the novel Another Country, a self-reflective exploration of racism and homosexuality. To Baldwin, Another Country was an existential parable on racial reconciliation, driven by the sacrifice of its central character, Rufus. The book received mixed reviews, but Baldwin was working toward his monumental social commentary, The Fire Next Time (1963).
By this time Baldwin was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and was frustrated by government inaction. The Fire Next Time pressed for more urgency and warned Americans that humanistic love was the only option available outside a racial apocalypse. Blues for Mr. Charlie, a 1964 play, reiterated Baldwin's prophecy concerning the potential for violence should mainstream Americans ignore the righteous indignation of oppressed African Americans. Brutal acts of hatred, such as the murder of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June 1963 in Mississippi and the deaths of four black girls, bombed in a Birmingham church on September 15 the same year, provided the tragic inspiration for the play.
Blues for Mr. Charlie used the black theater to confront the demons plaguing race politics and the civil rights movement. The play announced the Janus-faced logic of black militancy that blamed white false consciousness and vacillation for the inability to overcome injustice. With searing clarity, Baldwin prophesied the radicalization of the civil rights movement and the possibility that white liberals would abandon the cause. Left in the wake, he warned, would be the original intent of the civil rights movement and passive resistance, the notion that the human capacity for love is a greater force than the propensity to hate. Blues for Mr. Charlie was even more of a tinderbox than The Fire Next Time, because it left the moral questions dangling with no solution.
Four years later Baldwin again tried his hand at drama with The Amen Corner. Although Baldwin published The Amen Corner in 1968, it had been playing at theaters throughout the nation since the late 1950s. The play examined the inner conflict between love and isolation, the chaos of unimpeded personal choice, and the dull consistency of safety. Baldwin's final major literary work of the 1960s was Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), which critics in the United States derided as fixed in the politics of the civil rights movement and devoid of artistic interpretation. Some readers (mostly Europeans), however, viewed the book in biographical terms. These critics believed the protagonist Leo Proudhammer's journey from a social philosophy of Christian love to militant nationalism to be similar to Baldwin's own metamorphosis during the decade.
By 1968 writers and critics became increasingly concerned that Baldwin had transgressed the unspoken line between life and art. Quite simply, they thought that he spent too much of his time proselytizing for civil rights. Baldwin, however, saw no distinction between life and art. His development as an artist came from the civil rights movement and unresolved identity issues from his childhood. He simply could not escape his duty to defend black liberation in the United States. Additionally, Baldwin knew that his work was useful. His writing about the pervasive nature of white supremacy in the United States and the dissonance it created across racial lines gave the civil rights movement intellectual balance and validity. It was the appropriate complement to Dr. King's social philosophy.
In the 1960s Baldwin became involved in quite a few campaigns for civil and human rights that spanned the decade and took many forms. The Federal Bureau of Investigation monitored him for his support of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a leftist association that advocated for Communist Cuba. When the University of Mississippi denied James Meredith, a black Mississippian, admission in 1962, Baldwin gave a series of protest lectures throughout the South for CORE that exposed him to the horror of the Jim Crow South. It also introduced him to Evers.
By then famous for The Fire Next Time, Baldwin preached a gospel of liberation to his audience that called for whites to relinquish their myths about the past and African Americans. Doing this, he argued, was their surest way to free themselves from the legacy of white supremacy. In support of King's campaign in Birmingham, Baldwin drafted a letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, chastising the administration for not taking up the civil rights movement's moral challenge to the nation. Baldwin's efforts culminated in the famous meeting on civil rights between the Kennedy administration and artists and a few activists, which took place on 24 May 1963, a few months before the March on Washington.
Despite his conspicuous political acts and the national consensus that he was the most absorbing speaker on the question of race, African-American leaders gave Baldwin no significant part in the 28 August 1963 March on Washington, a rally where more than 200,000 people gathered in support of equal rights for all. The decision of the march leaders foreshadowed Baldwin's estrangement from the civil rights community. One can assume that there were reservations among the planners about having a gay man take such a visible role in the event, but the fact that Baldwin's rhetoric was becoming more radical also may have influenced the decision. Baldwin admired Dr. King and was a staunch advocate of integration, but he increasingly began to see that moral persuasion alone would not balance the social scale. His time as an expatriate had sensitized him to the idea that African Americans existed as a colony of the Western world. White supremacy, Baldwin found, had created structures and rituals akin to the empires of Europe. As such, it required an anticolonial response. Similarly, he agreed with the urgency and uncompromising posture of the activist Malcolm X but disagreed with Malcolm X's commitment to separation from whites.
After race riots in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1964, the civil rights movement split between passive resisters and Black Power advocates. The division put Baldwin in the unusual position of being sympathetic to both sides. Baldwin was a significant force in the development of Black Power's rhetoric and ideas, but he distrusted the agenda of its leadership. Nevertheless, like King and Malcolm X, Baldwin developed a relationship with the members of CORE, the Black Panther Party, and SNCC. To some degree, his alliance with the radicals appeared natural, because both doubted the commitment of white liberals, on whom the civil rights community depended to promote change.
Throughout the late 1960s Baldwin showed his support by speaking and writing on behalf of the militants, even though there was a faction among them that questioned his place in black liberation, owing to his commitment to integration and his homosexuality. Baldwin's harshest critic among the radicals was Eldridge Cleaver, a former inmate who had become a writer and minister of information for the Black Panthers, who equated Baldwin's homosexuality with race hatred and suicide. Nevertheless, Baldwin forged an uneasy bond with the Black Power activists, because they represented to him an answer to the inherent weakness of King's political philosophy.
By the end of the 1960s, the alliance between Baldwin and the black militants became more strained as the militants increasingly used Baldwin's celebrity to promote their own brand of revolution. The Fire Next Time and subsequent writings had argued that while blacks could not trust a white Christian God to deliver the United States from its nightmare of oppression, neither could they rely upon a black God. This stance alienated Baldwin from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (a radical religious movement, also known as the Black Muslims, that espoused racial separation) in the early 1960s. To Baldwin, a black cult built upon a fictional past and myths about the present was just as toxic as western lies. Baldwin's final separation from the civil rights movement came with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on 4 April 1968.
Baldwin did not drift into obscurity in the 1970s; he continued to have a very productive writing career until his death from stomach cancer at the age of sixty-three. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. The 1960s undoubtedly stand as Baldwin's golden moment, a time when he helped set the national agenda and defined the structure of the discussion that formed the civil rights revolution.
Some of Baldwin's papers and letters are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Biographies include Louis Hill Pratt, James Baldwin (1978); Lisa Rosset, James Baldwin (1989); Quincy Troupe, ed., James Baldwin: The Legacy (1989); James Campbell, Talking at the Gate: A Life of James Baldwin (1991); David A. Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (1994); and Randall Kenan, James Baldwin (1994). Other helpful insights are in Fern Marja Eckman, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin (1966); Stanley Macebuh, James Baldwin: A Critical Study (1973); Ernest A. Champion, Mr. Baldwin, I Presume: James Baldwin–Chinua Achebe, A Meeting of the Minds (1995); Rosa Bobia, The Critical Reception of James Baldwin in France (1997); Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (1998); Dwight McBride, ed., James Baldwin Now (1999); Katherine L. Balfour, The Evidence of Things Not Said (2001); and Keith Clark, Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson (2002). Obituaries are in the Times (London), New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, and USA Today (all 2 Dec.1987).
Christopher T. Fisher