For more than three decades beginning in the mid-1950s, James Baldwin was one of the most prominent and prolific writers on race and identity in the United States. Delving into almost every genre, he wrote six novels, three plays, a children’s storybook, a book of short stories, a book of poetry, and more than 100 essays. Beginning with a review of a Maksim Gor’kii book in the Nation in 1947, his reviews, critiques, memoirs, and open letters were published extensively in some of the best-known publications, including New Leader, Freedomways, Commentary, Harper’s, Mademoiselle, Partisan Review, Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Review, Playboy, Esquire, and the New York Times. Topics included his views on literature, film, history, children, and a host of prominent and notso-prominent individuals, always infused with the issue of race. For Baldwin the essay was a weapon for change. His reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s provided a definitive analysis of its progress and made him an enemy of the state: James Campbell writes in Talking at the Gates (1991) that the U.S.Federal Bureau of Investigation alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him.
Baldwin’s nonfiction is often defined by the autobiographical template he seems unable to escape. In the midst of flowing, poetic prose, he is apt to digress to his life in Harlem, Paris, or elsewhere. Such asides frequently relate the story of his strict Protestant upbringing, of being told by his cruel, minister stepfather—and believing—that he is ugly. This story also includes accounts of his early sexual ambiguities; his brief career as a teenage minister; his determination against all odds to become a writer; his numerous, dangerous encounters with policemen, bar owners, and restaurateurs; and the constant rage that engulfed him—that could ultimately have led to his death—causing him to flee to Paris in 1948.
Stylistically his essays are defined by two elements. The first is a rolling, sometimes convoluted (almost stream-of-consciousness) language, whose rhythms and imagery are born of the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the African American Protestant church. This is seen in what many believe to be his greatest work, The Fire Next Time (1963), when he writes: “…this urgency of American Negroes is not to be forgotten! As they watch black men elsewhere rise, the promise held out, at last, that they may walk the earth with the authority with which white men walk, protected by the power that white men shall have no longer, is enough, and more than enough, to empty prisons and pull God down from Heaven.” Many of the titles of his nonfiction also bear witness to his reliance on religious themes and symbols: The Fire Next Time (biblical slave song), No Name in the Street (Job), The Devil Finds Work (a religious homily), The Evidence of Things Not Seen (St. Paul). The second, more subtle element is his bitingly sardonic, blues-inspired commentary, as in the streetwise metaphor he gives his last collection: The Price of the Ticket (1985). And in The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), he deconstructs the mythology of U.S. capitalism and its relationship to the slave auction: “Honest toil and the magic of the marketplace sums up Black American history with a terrifying precision, and is the key to our continuing dilemma. Our first sight of America was this marketplace and our legal existence, here, begins with the signature on the bill of sale.”
Early in his career, as he painfully worked on his first novel, Baldwin earned a reputation as a literary critic of some merit, publishing exclusively in the Nation, Commentary, and New Leader from 1947 to 1949. He was also heralded as the next Richard Wright, an African American novelist and social commentator who befriended him and whom he idolized, but from whom he would later become deeply estranged.
Both he and Wright were viewed as “protest” writers because of their persistent criticism of the legacy of racism that they perceived in the United States and Europe, but Baldwin eschewed “protest” as a shallow and futile goal. The role of the artist, he said, “is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (“The Creative Process,” 1962).
Baldwin’s fiction was much influenced by Wright’s masterwork novel, Native Son (1940), which was heralded as the quintessential treatise on the psyche of the black American. For Baldwin, Wright, who mentored the young writer, represented a kind of literary father figure. Yet in much the same way that Baldwin had undermined his minister stepfather’s power over him by outdoing him as a teenage minister, he usurped Wright with devastatingly critical analyses of his novel. The first of these criticisms (“Everybody’s Protest Novel”) was published by a short-lived French publication, Zéro (Spring 1949), and subsequently republished in Partisan Review (June 1949). Two years later, as a split developed between Baldwin and Wright, Baldwin would insure the schism with a thorough, accurate, but unflattering critique of Native Son in “Many Thousands Gone” (Partisan Review, November/ December 1951). Native Son, Baldwin says, is unquestionably “the most powerful and celebrated statement we have yet had of what it means to be a Negro in America.” But, he opined, it is incomplete: “…though we follow [the anti-hero Bigger Thomas] step by step from the tenement room to the death cell, we know as little about him when his journey is ended as we did when it began; and what is even more remarkable, we know almost as little about the social dynamic which we are to believe created him.” For Baldwin, therefore, Bigger Thomas “does not redeem the pains of a despised people, but reveals, on the contrary, nothing more than his own fierce bitterness at having been born one of them.”
Though Baldwin’s world view is frequently expressed in biting commentary, it is always tempered, paradoxically, with an urgent cry for blacks and whites to come together, in love, to liberate themselves from a history of racism. And his philosophical view of race remains constant throughout his career. Simply put, Baldwin believed that Europeans came to the New World as nationalities, but quickly became “white” as they unified in ritualistic violence, murdered the peoples they found there, and imported African slaves. In their attempt to deny the reality and horrors of the Native American and African “holocaust[s],” whites have trapped themselves in a mythological history that will not allow them to be rid of the guilt and shame of their actions. “Americans passionately believe in their avowed ideals, amorphous as they are, and are terrified of waking from a radiant dream,” he writes in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” (The New Leader, 10 April 1948), a critique of Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County. Almost four decades later, in an open letter to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu in the Los Angeles Times (21 January 1986), he says, “The wealth of England and my country, the wealth of the Western world, in short, is based on slave labor, and the intolerable guilt thus engendered in hearts and minds of the Civilized is the root of what we call racism.”
A consequence of this falsified American history is that “[It] has allowed white people, with scarcely any pangs of conscience whatever, to create, in every generation, only the Negro they wished to see” (“A Fly in Buttermilk,” 1958). Blacks, on the other hand, are expected to believe the lie, or, under pain of death (by vigilantes, policemen, or the state), at least to act as if they believe it. The price of such delusion—The Price of the Ticket he calls it in the title essay of his collected nonfiction—is, for blacks, self-hatred, or rebellion, or both. For the white American, the price is “to become white…nothing less,” and to continue to live with the guilt. To illustrate the paradoxical nature of this “conundrum,” he repeats, in scores of essays, some form of the dialectical paradigm: “… by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know who the white man is” (“Stranger in the Village,” 1953). Or, conversely,“…if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!” (“A Talk to Teachers,” 1963).
The resolution of this demented game falls heavily on African Americans in a kind of distorted, redemptive process that mirrored the 1960s civil rights movement, in which Baldwin became actively involved as a writer, interpreter, and demonstrator. For example, in August 1965 he writes: “… one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history” (“White Man’s Guilt”). But, he is always careful to add, this cathartic confrontation must be accomplished with love: “And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (The Fire Next Time).
Baldwin’s timely explanation of the imperative of nonviolent struggle made him the darling of the mainstream media of the 1960s. Though he sometimes published in African American publications such as Ebony and Freedomways, he wrote almost exclusively to whites, pleading for liberals to get on board, change their ways, before it was too late.
Again, in The Fire Next Time, he describes the profound effect of his visit with Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s black separatist leader. He notes the unerring logic that brings Mr. Muhammad to an indictment against whites as devils whose reign must end, probably in violence: “All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions. The South Side [of Chicago] proved the justice of the indictment; the state of the world proved the justice of the indictment.” Still, Baldwin concludes, “one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate, and at no matter what risk—eviction, imprisonment, torture, death. For the sake of one’s children, in order to minimize the bill that they must pay, one must be careful not to take refuge in any delusion—and the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” Finally, he warns his reader in the last
words of the book: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, recreated from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, the fire next time!”
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, when many African Americans had turned away from the civil rights movement and toward more militant strategies, Baldwin began to acknowledge the possibility of some inevitable, cataclysmic confrontation between the races. Though he still clung to his basic notion about the need for love and change, No Name in the Street (1972) ends with a hint that he might have come to the end of his rope:”…it is terrible to watch people cling to their captivity and insist on their own destruction. I think black people have always felt this about America, and Americans, and have always seen, spinning above the thoughtless American head, the shape of the wrath to come.”
Some optimism would later return, particularly with the changes he witnessed with the appointment and election of African Americans in the political arena. But the slow progress made in South Africa against apartheid and his investigation of a series of child murders in Atlanta (The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985) kept alive the Baldwinian paradox, which he himself identifies, less than two years before his death, in his 1986 letter to Bishop Tutu: “I am sure that you believe, with me, this paradox: Black freedom will make white freedom possible. Indeed, our freedom, which we have been forced to buy at so high a price, is the only hope of freedom that they have.”
James Arthur Baldwin. Born 2 August 192.4 in New York City. Studied at Public School 134, Harlem, New York, and DeWitt Clinton High School, Bronx, New York, graduated 1942. Briefly a storefront preacher in Harlem during adolescence; worked at various odd jobs in New York, and in defense work, Belle Meade, New Jersey, early 1940s. Lived primarily in Europe (mainly Paris and Istanbul), from 1948, making frequent trips to the U.S. Contributor to many journals and magazines, including the Partisan Review, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Freedomways, New Leader, Esquire, Ebony, and the Nation.
Awards: several, including four fellowships; American Academy Award, 1956; George Polk Award, for magazine articles, 1963; Foreign Drama Critics Award, 1964; Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, 1978; honorary degree from the University of British Columbia. Member of the American Academy, 1964; Commander, Legion of Honor (France), 1986. Died (of stomach cancer) in St. Paul de Vence, France, 30 November 1987.
Essays and Related Prose
Notes of a Native Son, 1955
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, 1961
The Fire Next Time, 1963
No Name in the Street, 1972
The Devil Finds Work, 1976
The Evidence of Things Not Seen, 1985
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985, 1985
Other writings: six novels (Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1953; Giovanni’s Room, 1956;
Another Country, 1962; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1968; If Beale Street Could Talk, 1974; Just Above My Head, 1979), the collection of short stories Going to Meet the Man (1965), three plays, and poetry.
Fischer, Russell G., “James Baldwin: A Bibliography 1947–1962,” Bulletin of Bibliography (January-April 1965): 127–30
Kindt, Kathleen A., “James Baldwin: A Checklist 1947–1962,” Bulletin of Bibliography
(January-April 1965): 123–26
Standley, Fred L., and Nancy Standley, James Baldwin: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1980
Bloom, Harold, editor, James Baldwin, New York: Chelsea House, 1986
Campbell, James, Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, London: Faber, and New York: Viking, 1991
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Early, Gerald, “James Baldwin’s Neglected Essay: Prizefighting, the White Intellectual and the Racial Symbols of American Culture,” Antaeus 62 (Spring 1989): 150–65
Eckman, Fern Marja, The Furious Passage of James Baldwin, New York: Evans, and London: Michael Joseph, 1966
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., “The Fire Last Time: What James Baldwin Can and Can’t Teach America,” New Republic, 1 June 1992: 37–43
Jothiprakash, R., Commitment as a Theme in African American Literature: A Study of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Bristol, Indiana: Wyndham Hall, 1994
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Leeming, David, James Baldwin: A Biography, New York: Knopf, and London: Michael Joseph, 1994
Lester, Julius, “Academic Freedom and the Black Intellectual,” Black Scholar 19, no. 6 (November-December 1988): 16–27
Macebuh, Stanley, James Baldwin: A Critical Study, New York: Third Press, 1973
Möller, Karin, The Theme of Identity in the Essays of James Baldwin: An Interpretation, Gothenburg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 1975
Porter, Horace A., Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, –1989
Pratt, Louis H., James Baldwin, Boston: Twayne, 1978
Ro, Sigmund, Rage and Celebration: Essays on Contemporary Afro-American Writing, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1984
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Troupe, Quincy, editor, James Baldwin: The Legacy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989
Waldrep, Shelton, “‘Being Bridges’: Cleaver/Baldwin/Lorde and African-American Sexism and Sexuality,” Journal of Homosexuality 26, nos. 2–3 (August-September 1993): 167–80
Weatherby, W.J., James Baldwin, Artist on Fire: A Portrait, New York: Fine, and London: Michael Joseph, 1989
Wedin, Carolyn, “James Baldwin: Out of the Amen Corner,” Christian Century, 16 November 1988:1042–47
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