Saturday, June 4, 2016

Pride Month Profiles: James Baldwin

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James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987)
Author, activist, social critic
Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur, 1986

Born and raised in a fractured Harlem family, Baldwin struggled to find a niche as a black, gay man in a straight, white postwar world. Not educated past high school, he read omnivorously, and wrote constantly, while patching together a living out of one job and another. He had a talent for friendship- Marlon Brando was his roommate for a time in 1944- and a way with words.

In 1948 he challenged a segregated New York restaurant’s policies; told he would not be served, he hurled a glass at the waitress and shattered a back bar mirror. Shortly after he concluded he could not be himself in his native land- he did not wish to be a “black” writer, and feared if his sexual orientation was known, he would not be a writer at all- and moved to Paris.

Almost immediately Baldwin found outlets for his writing and friends in the American Negro expat community; but for short intervals, France was his home for the rest of his life. His homes became artistic salons for artists, writers and musicians; in 1953 his most famous book, Go Tell It On The Mountain, was published in America. A collection of essays he’d worked on since high school, Notes of A Native Son, followed in 1955. Giovanni’s Room (1956) was a scandal, portraying a love affair between two men in postwar Paris. His publisher advised him to burn the manuscript, fearing it would alienate black readers. Once the book was issued, it enjoyed respectful reviews and remains a best-seller in the LGBT community.

Baldwin became involved with the American civil right struggles of the late 1950s; between 1957 and 1963 he made several trips through the Carolinas to observe,and write about, desegregation first hand. A close familiar of the movement’s leaders, he was a prominent guest at the 1963 March on Washington, but, given the cold feet of black leaders toward gays in their midst like Bayard Rustin, Baldwin was unceremoniously disinvited to speak at the rally. His influence as a commentator on civil rights was such that Time put him on its cover in a summer, 1963 issue.

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Through the 1970s and ‘80s, Baldwin was a sharp, pointed critic of American society at the intersections of race, sex, and class. His dialogues with Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, remain a classic. If anything, Baldwin- who would have been 91 today- is enjoying a resurgence of relevance, often cited in current debates over race relations in America.

Baldwin was a hugely influential writer, if not a broadly popular one in a mass-market sense. His pointed debating style and manner marked him, among many white audiences, as an agitator, and his associations with Malcolm X and Angela Davis. At the Henry Bemis Books website, you can watch Baldwin in a 1965 Cambridge Union debate with William F. Buckley, Jr. on whether the American Dream was realized as the expense of African-Americans.

After his death in the south of France, Baldwin’s body was buried in New York City. He remains one of the most highly ranked black authors in American history. His Facebook page has over 169,000 followers.

Related sites:

NET Broadcast, “Debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley,” 1965

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