Thursday, August 02, 2018

Born Today in 1924, American Writer James Baldwin


James Baldwin was born today, August 2, in 1924. He was an American novelist and social critic. His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America. Some of Baldwin's essays are book-length, including The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was expanded and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award-nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.

Baldwin's novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of African Americans, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals' quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.

Baldwin's  mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse. She moved to Harlem, New York, where Baldwin was born in Harlem Hospital. In New York, his mother married a preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight children, born between 1927 and 1943; her husband also had one son from a previous marriage who was nine years older than James. The family was poor and Baldwin's stepfather was harder on him than on the rest of the children. His unusual intelligence combined with the persecution by his stepfather caused Baldwin to spend much of his time alone in libraries. By the time Baldwin had reached adolescence, he had discovered his passion for writing. His educators deemed him gifted, and in 1937, at the age of 13, he wrote his first article, titled "Harlem—Then and Now."


While working odd jobs, Baldwin wrote short stories, essays, and book reviews, some of them later collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955). He befriended the actor Marlon Brando in 1944 and the two were roommates for a time. They remained friends for more than 20 years.

During his teenage years Baldwin started to realize that he was gay. In 1948, he walked into a restaurant where he knew he would be denied service. When the waitress explained that African Americans were not served there, Baldwin threw a glass of water at her, shattering the mirror behind the bar. Disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks, he left the United States at the age of 24 and settled in Paris, France. He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer." He also hoped to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and escape the hopelessness that many young African-American men like himself succumbed to in New York.


In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger, aged 17, though Happersberger's marriage 3 years later left Baldwin distraught. 

Baldwin returned to the United States from living inParis in the summer of 1957 while civil rights legislation of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl, Dorothy Counts, braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv had suggested he report on what was happening in the American south. Baldwin was nervous about the trip but he made it, interviewing people in Charlotte (where he met Martin Luther King Jr.), and Montgomery, Alabama. The result was two essays, one published in Harper's magazine ("The Hard Kind of Courage"), the other in Partisan Review ("Nobody Knows My Name"). Subsequent Baldwin articles on the movement appeared in Mademoiselle, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, where in 1962 he published the essay that he called "Down at the Cross" and the New Yorker called "Letter from a Region of My Mind." Along with a shorter essay from The Progressive, the essay became The Fire Next Time.

By the spring of 1963, the mainstream press began to recognize Baldwin's incisive analysis of white racism and his eloquent descriptions of the Negro's pain and frustration. In fact, Time featured Baldwin on the cover of its May 17, 1963 issue. "There is not another writer," said Time, "who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South."

In a cable Baldwin sent to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the Birmingham, Alabama crisis, Baldwin blamed the violence in Birmingham on the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, Mississippi Senator James Eastland, and President Kennedy for failing to use "the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be." Attorney General Kennedy invited Baldwin to meet with him over breakfast, and that meeting was followed up with a second, when Kennedy met with Baldwin and others Baldwin had invited to Kennedy's Manhattan apartment. This meeting is discussed in Howard Simon's 1999 play, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire. The delegation included Kenneth B. Clark, a psychologist who had played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision; actor Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, and activists from civil rights organizations. Although most of the attendees of this meeting left feeling "devastated," the meeting was an important one in voicing the concerns of the civil rights movement and it provided exposure of the civil rights issue not just as a political issue but also as a moral issue.

Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, with Belafonte and long-time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. The civil rights movement was hostile to homosexuals. The only known gay men in the movement were James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. Rustin and King were very close, as Rustin received credit for the success of the March on Washington. Many were bothered by Rustin's sexual orientation. King himself spoke on the topic of sexual orientation in a school editorial column during his college years, and in reply to a letter during the 1950s, where he treated it as a mental illness which an individual could overcome. The pressure later resulted in King distancing himself from both men. At the time, Baldwin was neither in the closet nor open to the public about his sexual orientation. Later on, Baldwin was conspicuously uninvited to speak at the end of the March on Washington.

After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church three weeks after the March on Washington, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this "terrifying crisis."

Nonetheless, he rejected the label "civil rights activist," or that he had participated in a civil rights movement, instead agreeing with Malcolm X's assertion that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one's civil rights. In a 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Baldwin refuted the idea that the civil rights movement was an outright revolution, instead calling it "a very peculiar revolution because it has to...have its aims the establishment of a union, and a...radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life...not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country." In a 1979 speech at UC Berkeley, he called it, instead, "the latest slave rebellion."

Early on December 1, 1987, (some sources say late on November 30) Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.

The American artist Fred Nall Hollis, known as Nall, took care of James Baldwin on his deathbed. Nall had been friends with Baldwin from the early 1970's because Baldwin would buy him drinks at the Café de Flore. Nall recalled talking to Baldwin about racism in Alabama with the author shortly before his death. In one conversation, Nall told Baldwin that "Through your books you liberated me from my guilt about being so bigoted coming from Alabama and because of my homosexuality." Baldwin insisted that "No, you liberated me in revealing this to me."

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

Shamefully under-rated and too often going unacknowledged even. Deserves to have been more influential than he's been thus far. His time will come!