February 14, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 27
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Baldwin: A literary standard

Talia Whyte

“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

— James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

James Baldwin had fire, all right.

He was a dynamic public intellectual, a friend to some of the most important figures in history, and a brave writer who became an oracle for African Americans during the height of the civil rights movement. Baldwin motivated people around the world to think about what social change could really look like.

In the 20 years since his death, however, any memory of his illustrious career has usually been relegated to the back annuls of black history. Conventional wisdom suggests that bigotry toward Baldwin’s homosexuality has kept him off par with other black luminaries.

Nonetheless, Baldwin is known for his outspoken, militant and often unpredictable viewpoints, behaviors that created countless enemies and may explain the lingering resentment.

Baldwin, in more ways than one, was a walking contradiction. While he was an out and proud gay atheist, he was also close allies with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and had the occasional dinner with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

He also took criticism from every direction. Black nationalists chastised him for propagating black misery during segregation to appeal to white liberals, while at the same time establishment civil rights leaders thought Baldwin’s radicalism would alienate those same white liberals.

Case in point: In May 1963, Baldwin was invited by then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to bring a group of prominent African Americans to Kennedy’s apartment to discuss the state of race relations. This group included actors Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Malcolm X was critical of this group because he felt they didn’t represent the spectrum of African American life, as they all had white spouses.

The meeting, it turns out, exploded into a shouting match between Baldwin and Kennedy. Baldwin claimed Kennedy was naïve about the impending race war in America, and chastised him for not taking a harder stance on civil rights legislation. Offended by Baldwin’s accusations, Kennedy had FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover put Baldwin under surveillance.

A few months later at the March on Washington, Baldwin’s speech was censored because it was believed that his words were too militant. Malcolm X, who famously called the historical event “the farce on Washington,” said Baldwin was barred from speaking because he was “liable to say anything.”

“He was just too unpredictable,” said Herb Boyd, historian and author of the new book, “Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin,” during a recent telephone interview from New York. “The March organizers wanted to see his speech beforehand. He had so many fires and so many causes. The sword was always drawn with him.”

Boyd argues in his book that Baldwin’s ideologies and literary style were shaped while growing up in Harlem, the historical home of some of the most important social and political events and people of the black experience.

Baldwin was born on Aug. 2, 1924, a day after Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association hosted a massive march past Harlem Hospital where he was born to open the fourth annual International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World. Growing up in abject poverty, Baldwin found his voice through writing at an early age. The poet Countee Cullen was one of his mentors in high school. His breakthough 1953 autobiographical novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” was a coming-of-age saga of a black teen in the African American church.

After a brief stint working menial jobs in New Jersey as a young man, Baldwin hitched his wagon and took off for Paris, where he came into contact with the likes of writers Richard Wright and Ernest Hemingway. His Paris experience provided partial inspiration for future novels like 1956’s “Giovanni’s Room” and 1962’s “Another Country,” which dealt candidly with racial and sexual identities at a time when such topics were still taboo.

Motivated by the growing racial tension back in the United States, Baldwin came home in the early 1960s and threw himself into the fire of the burgeoning civil rights movement. He gave speeches and wrote prolifically for major publications of record about the growing tides of change in America. His groundbreaking 1963 book, “The Fire Next Time,” and “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” a play loosely based on the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, are considered two of the era’s most influential works about race relations.

Over the years, Baldwin’s politics grew more militant. He became more supportive of black nationalists like Angela Davis and Stokley Carmichael. Following the assassination of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961, black radicals stormed U.N. headquarters demanding answers to his murder. In a New York Times article written after the incident, Baldwin said the “riot” at the United Nations was “but a small echo of the black discontent now abroad” and “if we are not able, and quickly, to face and begin to eliminate the sources of discontent in our own country, we will never be able to do it in the world at large.”

For all his advocacy against racial injustice, Baldwin found himself dodging accusations of anti-Semitism throughout his career. One of his first major essays published in Commentary, a Jewish-owned publication, accused Jewish business owners of ripping off black Harlemites and “doing the dirty work of Christians.” There would be many more accusations, including when he allegedly defended the Rev. Jesse Jackson for his use of “Hymietown” during a speech at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1984.

“The anti-Semitic charges were incorrect,” Boyd said. “When he wrote the article for Commentary, there was a lot of hostility toward white businesses in Harlem at the time. Black folks like him at the time didn’t see a difference between Italians, Polish or Jewish — they were all white, as far as they were concerned. As a matter of fact, he had many close associates and advisors throughout his life who were Jewish.”

During the last two decades of his life, Baldwin continued to write books and essays that many say expressed his deep bitterness and anger toward the assassinations of many of his famous friends. Baldwin died on Nov. 30, 1987, in his home in southern France.

Today, tributes to Baldwin’s life have been limited — a commemorative stamp from the United States Postal Service, a passing reference in history books. However, according to Boyd, Baldwin’s legacy may have had a more significant, if often invisible, impact.

“He was a profound and prolific witness,” Boyd said. “He had that gift of eloquence and integrity. He spoke truth to power.”

Boyd believes that if Baldwin were alive today, he would be speaking out on pressing issues such as U.S. involvement in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It would only be natural for him to go where the fire was.

“We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves,” Baldwin wrote in his book, “No Name in the Street,” “if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.”

Novelist James Baldwin, shown in the study of his home in St. Paul de Vence in Southern France in this 1983 file photo. Baldwin, who passed away over 20 years ago, was an outspoken intellectual and critic of racial injustice throughout his life. (AP photo)

American novelist James Baldwin (left) and composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein pose together, shortly after they were awarded the French Legion d’Honneur, by French President Mitterrand at the Elysees Palace in Paris, France, on June 19, 1986. For a brief period, Baldwin made his home in Paris, which provided inspiration for novels like “Giovanni’s Room” and “Another Country.” He died in Nov. 1987 in his home in Southern France. (AP photo/Laurent Rebours)

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