Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Birthday: "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

baldwn stamp.jpg

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

We are not so far removed from his time, that had fate been more genial, James Baldwin might be alive and among us today, a nonagenarian prophet with vastly more honor in his own country than he ever dreamed.

Not that he would be resting amid the laurels. Today- James Baldwin’s 93rd birthday- sees the Attorney General of the United States sidelining his own Civil Rights Division- created sixty years ago under pressure from Baldwin, among others- to establish a team of political appointees to attack affirmative action programs in education as discrimination against white folks.

That is the news to which James Baldwin would have woken today.


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 (his stepfather, a severe Pentecostalist minister, put James to work at the church at fourteen), he read omnivorously.

At seventeen he declared his independence from his large family (his mother he wrote, had “the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies”) and wrote constantly while patching together a living out of one job and another. His stepfather tried to get him home, certain Baldwin’s impetuousness and improbable calling to write would do him in (“he said I was challenging the white man’s definitions,” Baldwin said, “and he was certainly right”).

Baldwin had a talent for friendship- Marlon Brando was his roommate for a time in 1944- and a way with words. But 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, arriving with $40 and no French.

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 over being about same-sex relationships, and white readers over a black author trying to write about white folks at all, never mind perverts.

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 obser ve,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, however,  that Time put him on its cover in a summer, 1963 issue. That choice caused controversy as well.

baldwin time.jpg

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 is enjoying a resurgence of relevance, often cited in current debates of 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. On YouTube 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 a quarter-million followers.

Let his profile at today’s Writer’s Almanac have the last say:

James Baldwin's influence on other American artists, whether of spirit or love or style, is undeniable. He and the poet Langston Hughes were responsible for getting the singer Nina Simone involved in the civil rights movement. Maya Angelou, remembering Baldwin in The New York Times after his death, said that he "set the stage" for her to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He told Angelou she was "intelligent and very brave," introduced her to his family as one of their own, saying she was his mother's newest daughter, and was, in Angelou's words, "my friend and brother."

Toni Morrison, in her goodbye and thank you in The New York Times, wrote that James Baldwin gave her three gifts: "a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect" that it seemed her own; "the courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges"; and his tenderness and vulnerability and a love that made one want to be worthy, generous, and strong.

Related sites:

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.