LEARNING what it meant to begin again characterised the life of the novelist and essayist James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem Hospital, New York, in 1924.
In the face of the racism that continued to stain the soul of the United States — which he would repeatedly refer to as “America’s original sin” — he sought to bear witness to the truth by confronting the violence, poverty, and humiliation that disfigured black lives. In part, this involved a struggle with his personal identity and sexuality, and the terrifying relationship with his stepfather, a Baptist preacher who instilled fear in the young James alongside the conviction that he was an ugly child.
BALDWIN was the eldest of nine children, raised in a community infested with rats, and defined by the ready availability of sex and drugs on its streets. Against expectations, at the local high school he proved a bright pupil, with a talent for writing and a love of the great literary classics, including the King James Bible.
At 14, he had a conversion experience and became a boy preacher in the charged but confined world of Harlem’s Pentecostal churches. For three years, he was a local celebrity, mesmerising and warning listeners with a voice that reflected the cadences of the Hebrew prophets.
Pulpit rhetoric gradually gave way to doubts and harsh practicalities. The Jewish pupils at school questioned the veracity of the tracts that he brought to class, and soon he would need paid work — a dismal prospect for a poor, black boy. He washed dishes, worked as an elevator attendant, did odd jobs, and lost quite a few along the way.
Time passed, but life contracted: bars, bowling alleys, diners, major libraries, decent cafés and restaurants, and places to live were all closed to him. He began to drink heavily, had casual affairs, and in his early twenties developed a bitterness towards a white world that brought him close to self-destruction.
BALDWIN had to begin again. A move to Paris in 1948 afforded him the freedom to view his past in a clearer light and begin his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Published in 1953, it was the book he had to write: “I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father.”
It was a critical success, unflinching in its shocking dramatisation of the impact of the segregation that he had experienced in Harlem, and an assault on America’s comforting illusions about the extent and depth of its “Negro problem”. The years of exile in Paris began to ease his pain. The hatred and self-loathing traceable to his childhood home began to seep from his heart, and the company of authors and thinkers brought him some happiness.
At 30, he was famous, applauded by liberals and fashionable society. Some of his own oppressed people called him a “bootlicker”: a smart, black “brother” from Harlem, who failed to convince them of the urgent need for everyone — black and white — to understand the complexity within themselves as a necessary step towards the redemption of the United States, which Baldwin equated with the New Jerusalem.
A subsequent novel dealt with sexual longing: the desire that he felt, as a sexually ambivalent gay man, that had been condemned by the Christianity of his youth and represented an affront to the American ideals of strong and powerful masculinity. The book was too controversial, and he was advised by publishers to burn it. Giovanni’s Room was eventually published in London and, later, in New York.
IN THE turbulent 1960s, Baldwin reached the height of his powers as a writer. He appeared on the prestigious front cover of Time magazine. His poignant and abrasive essay collection, The Fire Next Time, published in 1963, gave an influential voice to the emerging civil-rights movement that was convulsing the US.
Now acclaimed as “the poet of the revolution”, he organised protest marches, attended rallies, and promised courageous students who faced the brutality of the Southern states that he would never betray their trust.
He spoke out against both the war in Vietnam and discrimination against homosexuality. Frequently, he was caught in the crossfire of competing claims concerning race and white supremacy. Undeterred, he insisted that “we, the black and white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation. . . if we are to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women.”
THE assassination of Dr Martin Luther King and the subsequent collapse of the civil-rights movement devastated Baldwin and, for a time, derailed him. Dashed hopes and expectations came to represent for him yet one more instance of the need to begin again — to try to make sense of the profound contradictions at the heart of the United States’ democratic pretensions, and the rise of the new and violent black militancy that followed the murder of Dr King.
Critics increasingly viewed him as a spent force, out of step with the times, a writer who had squandered his literary gifts on politics. A closer reading of Baldwin’s body of work, however, reveals its impressive consistency. In a speech to the National Press Club, only a year before his death in 1987, Baldwin told an attentive but sceptical audience that America had to embrace more fully the reality of its racist past, to secure a more truthful understanding of its present divisions and discontents. He declared: “In the effort to deny from whence we came, we’ve had to make up a series of myths about it.” Not all heads nodded in agreement.
After the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the brutal death of George Floyd in 2020, Baldwin’s legacy continues to grow. A recent bestselling biography and Oscar-nominated film, I am Not Your Negro, have introduced him to a new generation of readers. Whether black or white, gay or straight, young or old, they are discovering (or rediscovering) his prophetic voice and brilliant prose. Both remain precious resources in the bringing to birth of a new world.
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.