As a lifelong anti-imperialist, black queer advocate, and feminist, James Baldwin (1924-1987) changed the face of Western politics and culture. In this blog, his biographer Bill V. Mullen explores Baldwin’s life and work.
The first biography of the great American writer in over a decade, James Baldwin: Living in Fire, is now available from Pluto Press.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York’s vital, turbulent black Mecca, in 1924. His school teacher, Orilla Miller, said the Baldwin family home embodied the ‘worst poverty’ that she ever saw. Baldwin was born five years before the 1929 stock market crash, but Harlem was already in a state of depression: his first memories were of ghetto detritus—rats and broken glass, heroin needles, and abusive landlords. Baldwin later referred to the area of his birth, 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, as ‘Junkie’s Hollow.’ His father, David, a Pentecostal storefront preacher, was an angry working-class man, a worker at a soda bottling plant in Long Island, New York, just across the Harlem River. He hated most white people, a fact Baldwin only later in life understood as a by-product of the fact that he couldn’t feed his nine children on a salary of $27.50 per week. His mother, a migrant single mother from the American South, felt love for her son James matched only by the hardship she endured raising him— and later—his eight siblings.
In many ways Baldwin’s life was an attempt to both transcend this fire, and carry it with him. His first of six novels, Go Tell It On the Mountain, is based closely on events in his Harlem youth. One of his first major essays, ‘The Harlem Ghetto,’ published in 1948 when he was all of 24, was a searing dissection of the grotesque social conditions that produced himself, and many, many African-Americans like him. Baldwin knew that escaping Harlem made him an exception—for every one of me, he wrote, there were thousands of young black boys dead, in prison, or ‘on the needle’—and created two roles for him as an American writer: as survivor and witness. In this Baldwin conjoined himself to a long history of African-American protest writing dating to the American slave narrative, which seeks to describe oppression and economic subjugation for readers in a world outside that system. This capacity, which Baldwin called ‘truth-telling,’ or ‘disturbing the peace,’ was also fundamental to the development of a political self that showed no patience for oppression or the oppressor, and compelled him to turn rage into resistance. In a famous 1970 letter to his political sister, the revolutionary Angela Davis as she awaited trial in Marin County on false charges of murder, Baldwin wrote:
‘We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalised, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell. The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America. Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.’
This passage encapsulates for Baldwin what it means to ‘live in fire,’ and to relentlessly rage against those who made him burn. It is no accident that his most famous work of social protest is titled The Fire Next Time, and his most famous metaphor for America a ‘burning house.’
The second epigraph above points us to another dimension of Baldwin’s radical life: as a Black, queer, working-class man coming of age in Cold War, homophobic America. Baldwin noted in his diary while in high school that he believed he might be gay. Yet his introduction to queer life in America was indirect, covert, and violent in ways characteristic of the homophobic hegemony of the world of his youth and young adulthood. He recalled being seduced into an alleyway by a desirous man as an adolescent, an encounter that left him confused, and given his religious upbringing, ashamed. Baldwin was forced to live on the ‘down-low’ as a boy in Harlem, closeting his sexuality from his family, especially his mother. John Grimes, the protagonist of Go Tell It On the Mountain, is Baldwin’s avatar of this life experience. Once Baldwin graduated from school, he moved immediately to Greenwich Village in New York, then, as now, a partial port for gay men. He meandered between confused heterosexual attraction—nearly marrying—and chance queer encounters in public places, like movie theatres.
His move to Paris in 1948 was, in part, an effort to reconcile what he called the ‘mystery’ of his sexuality. As he later told an interviewer of his state of mind before leaving the U.S., ‘I no longer felt who I really was, whether I was really black or really white, really male or really female.’ Once in Paris, Baldwin began to imagine his breakthrough queer novel of the 1950s—Giovanni’s Room, set in France and published in 1956. The bold experiment of writing the novel, and threats of censorship, terrified him. Its publication, however, allowed him incrementally to include more and more of his gay private life—lovers from Paris, and later Istanbul— into his fictional representations of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet throughout this period, Baldwin remained a vilified, stigmatised figure: his mentor Richard Wright gay-baited his ‘unmanly weeping’ as part of their private feud; a popular slur of the civil rights era referred to him as ‘Martin Luther Queen;’ Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver accused Baldwin in his real life and fiction of giving himself up to political sodomy from the white man. Public homophobic acrimony was the price Baldwin paid for his sexuality, a cost he understood as literal and figurative ‘bankruptcy’ for those for whom queer life could mean literally forfeiting chances at a normative life. The metaphor of bankruptcy was a reminder too that despite an extraordinary publishing career that included bestselling novels (Another Country), several successful books of essays, a pair of well-received plays, and numerous high-profile magazine articles, Baldwin lived perpetually on the meanest margins of capitalist society, fending off poverty as a constant, even as he battled to provide materially for those he loved and supported, like his family, from whom ironically he was forced to shield elements of his life.
Baldwin navigated these predicaments and assaults skillfully, though often internalising debilitating depression, even suicidal thoughts. By the 1980s, Baldwin was ‘out’ enough to publicly identify as gay, though he disliked the term, a point to which we will return. More importantly, though, Baldwin spent his life challenging heteronormative black and white sexuality on its own terms, ridiculing the fetishising of straight bodies and straight lives as part of a culture of reaction, repression, and gay panic in the United States. It was in part in conversation with black feminists of the 1970s that Baldwin began to further prise open this space of critique: both defending black men like his father from assault by the capitalist system, while recognising in black feminism a parallel struggle to his own to disrupt and dispel white, middle-class hegemony in both the women’s movement and the gay and lesbian movement (this was before transgender rights were attached to those two, and before the common self-designation ‘queer.’) Yet if Baldwin’s ‘truth-telling’ was to be both witness and survivor, his life is also a bracing testimonial to being the first African-American radical to make his sexuality an integral aspect of his public attack of racism, sexism, homophobia, and more generally, the matrix of repressive American power both domestically and internationally. Indeed, Baldwin’s famous and long periods of exile from the U.S. were also platforms to literally live and write a queer life—an ‘erotics of exile,’ as Magdalena Zaborowska has dubbed it—and to dissect his homeland as a place that functioned to repress, depress, or destroy young black men like himself.
Yet rather than succumb, Baldwin developed a capacious, revolutionary theory and practice of lived resistance to capitalism, imperialism, and oppression fuelled by a lifetime of study, engagement, and creative tension with the most dissident political movements in the U.S. and around the world. In 1961, at the age of 37, Baldwin named this dissidence ‘revolution,’ to reference our third quotation above, inspired by the worldwide sweep of anti-colonial movements across Africa and Asia, and by the sudden emergence in the United States of more militant wings of black civil rights struggle: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Nation of Islam. But Baldwin was also no political neophyte to the idea of ‘revolution’ in 1961; the word and idea had come to him in prior forms that this book will also mine, interrogate, and discuss. Baldwin was exposed to Communist school teachers as a child, and to socialist and anarchist political organisations in 1940s New York; he was recruited by the Trotskyist left, and described himself in the 1940s as a socialist. His poetry appeared in the Communist Daily Worker, and his essays in journals, like Partisan Review and Commentary, both influenced by the anti-Stalinist left. Even before the Cold War began formally, Baldwin had discerned the Stalinist nature of the U.S. Communist Party, which during World War II had retrenched on questions of racial justice in order to support the Soviet Union, and betrayed personal friends, in Baldwin’s estimation, like Richard Wright. Baldwin also claims that for a brief time he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, convinced to join by his friend Eugene Worth. Finally, Baldwin’s personal archives indicate he read the newspapers of both the Socialist Workers Party and its offshoot, the Workers Party, both Trotskyist organisations. They also indicate—something heretofore not noted by scholars—a close interest in anarchist politics during the war years. As Baldwin later put it in a letter to his teacher Orilla Winfield, ‘After my father died (1943) I … made it all the way from the Stalinists to the Anarchists in what I think must be record time.’ For Baldwin, the 1930s and 1940s, the years of his adolescence and young adulthood, was a period of exploration and experiment that this book will argue gave direct shape to many of the later more radical political decisions of his life, such as his support for Palestinian liberation, his embrace of ‘Third World’ non-aligned politics during the Cold War, and his relentless critique of anti-Communist repression in the United States, a tendency on evidence in his letter to Communist Angela Davis, cited earlier.
Indeed, as critical as his endeavour to build an ‘indigenous’ radical American politics—what Baldwin called, sympathetically in 1971, a ‘Yankee Doodle’ form of socialism—was, Baldwin’s embrace of global anti-imperialist politics themselves nurtured by a sympathetic exposure to and engagement with anti-colonial, subaltern, anti-racist struggles. The first example beyond U.S. shores was Baldwin’s attention to the plight of North African refugees and residents of France after his exile there in 1948. Baldwin was in Paris when the Algerian Revolution began in 1954. Even prior to it, he had noted the disproportionate number of North Africans in French prisons, their tenuous economic existence on the fringes of French society, and the unsubtle French racism that made him assert, in later writings, that Algerians were the ‘niggers’ of France. Baldwin’s decisions to leave France to go to the U.S. to cover the civil rights struggle (in 1957) and to go to Turkey (in 1961, where he lived on and off more than ten years) should be seen as dialectical moments in his political education: especially after reporting on the 1956 Presence Africains anti-colonial conference in Paris and listening to speakers like Frantz Fanon, Baldwin knew, despite early resistance to the idea, that the African-American, the Turk, the Arab, the Muslim, the African, the colonised everywhere, were one unified ‘wretched of the earth.’ His 1961 call for ‘revolution’ at a meeting for African liberation was thus a suturing together of nascent political under- standings of global political relations. The emergence of the Nation of Islam in the U.S.—the subject of his classic manifesto The Fire Next Time—also allowed Baldwin to think analogously, as a Pan-African, beyond America, across the time and space of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements: the Nation of Islam and its representative voice, Malcolm X, conjoined the African and Asian decolonisation struggle, the plight of the Palestinians in a still new Israel, the end of the French war against Vietnam, and the beginnings of the American one.
By the end of the 1960s, and in all of these sites of contestation, Baldwin was a transfigured, committed, street-fighting intellectual, as comfortable debating conservative William Buckley at Cambridge, as marching with forces of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Selma, Alabama, and defending Black Panthers from political attack in the U.S.
This element of Baldwin’s life—his willingness to organise, march, contribute money, write letters, sign petitions, and, where necessary, lead campaigns for social justice—has been underappreciated by scholars, but will be a significant dimension of this book. Baldwin should be understood as a literary ‘revolutionary’ in the way we have come to know the great twentieth-century writers of the Global South: Fanon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Léopold Senghor, Carmen Lyra, Assata Shakur. Indeed, many of Baldwin’s most important political books, including The Fire Next Time and the incendiary No Name in the Street, were written largely outside of America, or about events in Asia and Africa, and were post- marked to the entire world. The closing dateline for No Name in the Street is ‘New York, San Francisco, Hollywood, London, Istanbul, St. Paul de Vence, 1967–1971.’ Ironically, in a way, this self-consciously radicalised Baldwin, friends by the end of the 1960s with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale—and the world of Black Power and global decolonization that drew him close to its radical flame—was still catching up with the most radical, itinerant visions of his own youth. After all, it was in his 1953 Harpers Magazine essay ‘Stranger in the Village,’ a personal reminiscence about his relationship to European civilisation prompted by being the only Negro in a small Swiss Village, that ended with the stentorian claim, ‘The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.’ Understanding the prophetic valence of Baldwin’s words, their capacity to run ahead of history, predict it, and live it, is one of the true hallmarks of his mind and vision. Baldwin’s revolutionary insights, in other words, really were the result of ruthlessly criticising, matching the present to its past, and craving a means not simply to study the world, but to change it.
James Baldwin: Living in Fire is available from Pluto Press now.
Bill V. Mullen is Professor of American Studies at Purdue University. He is co-editor with Ashley Dawson of Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities (Haymarket, 2015). He is the author of W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (Pluto Press, 2016).