Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

The Radical James Baldwin

James Baldwin was many things: a brilliant writer, a trenchant social critic, a dogged activist. He was also an unapologetic radical.

American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin (1924–1987). (Townsend / Getty Images)

Living in Fire, Bill Mullen’s new biography of James Baldwin is many things: a short, accessible introduction to Baldwin’s life and work drawing on his letters and unpublished writings; an argument for his place among left artists and writers; and an overview of his less well-known writings on queer identity and anti-imperialism, including their relation to Palestine. It’s also a great advertisement for the New York City public schools.

Baldwin grew up as the oldest of nine children. His father was a storefront preacher who worked at a soda bottling plant, making $27.50 a week. His childhood took place largely during the Great Depression, when black unemployment reached 50 percent, but Baldwin’s teacher, Orilla Miller, nonetheless called the poverty of Baldwin’s house among the worst she had seen. Taking a liking to Baldwin, Miller brought him along to the movies, an experience he would recount many years later in The Devil Finds Work, his book-length essay about American films; her husband took Baldwin to the May Day parade, where he got his first taste of what he later described as “the universal and inevitable ferment which explodes into what is called a revolution.”

There were more felicitous encounters. At Frederick Douglass Junior High School, Baldwin met the poet Countee Cullen, who would encourage his writing and his move to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx — where, on the staff of the school literary magazine, he would meet two of his future editors as well as Richard Avedon, later a famous photographer and collaborator of Baldwin. And one of Baldwin’s teachers was Abel Meeropol, the communist lyricist of “Strange Fruit” and adopted parent of the Rosenberg children.

After high school, Baldwin worked a series of low-paying jobs while exploring the artistic life of Greenwich Village and the intellectual life of left-wing New York, winning a scholarship from the Communist League of American Writers. The string of fortunate meetings Mullen records at DeWitt seems to have given Baldwin the confidence to forge his own: one day after school, while working downtown, he introduced himself to the painter Beauford Delaney, later a mentor and lifelong friend, and at twenty he sought out a meeting with Richard Wright, who recommended Baldwin’s first novel, then in progress, to his publisher.

These encounters are all the more poignant because they point to the vibrancy of a world that McCarthyism would demolish — including pushing many of Meeropol’s comrades out of the New York public schools. As Ellen Schrecker, a historian of McCarthyism, has written, the true measure of that era’s repression is not only those imprisoned or deprived of their livelihood: it is the unions never organized, the books never written, and the films never made. Thinking of Baldwin, we might add: the students who never had an Orilla Miller or Abel Meeropol.

Despite the FBI’s constant surveillance — and despite feeling torn between political journalism and his novels, plays, and essays — Baldwin managed to write and publish prolifically throughout his life before his death in 1987. He was a visible figure who penned best sellers, saw his work adapted to the stage, reported on civil rights, and wrote political journalism for everywhere from Freedomways (cofounded by W. E. B. Du Bois) to Mademoiselle, Esquire, and the New Yorker. (He also left behind a tantalizing range of unfinished or abandoned projects, including a script for a movie based on Malcolm X’s life that was published but never filmed, a novel about an Arab man deported from France to Algeria, and an exposé of the FBI’s COINTELPRO.)

And yet, if it seems fair to say that Baldwin was neither effectively silenced in his own time nor neglected or forgotten since, his work, like so many other radicals, has been misremembered and bowdlerized. Today, as Baldwin’s work reenters popular culture — through the Black Lives Matter movement and the visibility of queer culture, through the documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the dramatic film adaption of the novel If Beale Street Could Talk — Mullen’s book is a welcome contribution to a portrait of the radical Baldwin, untamed by liberal platitudes.

Young Baldwin

In an interview featured in the PBS documentary The Price of the Ticket, Baldwin recalls how the country broke his father: “A proud man who could not feed his children,” Baldwin noted, his father wanted power but could only find it through attempts to dominate his family or assert his religiosity. “He could not bend, he could only be broken.” As the oldest child, with an unknown birth father, Baldwin would come to see his stepfather’s struggles as a stunted authoritarian masculinity to which US capitalism pushed so many.

In 1944, having graduated from high school and barely getting by, Baldwin felt little assurance he would meet a different fate than his recently deceased father, writing to his friend Tom Martin: “I have been in and out of the Village for three years now — from seventeen to twenty. I think the time is fast approaching when I must get out for good. There is death here. Everywhere people are sick or dying or dead.” It was one particular death two years later that pushed him toward the first of many periods outside the United States: the 1946 suicide of his close friend Eugene Worth, who had recruited Baldwin to the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL). The question of what Baldwin’s early engagement with socialism might have become had Worth not taken his own life, and McCarthyism not suffocated the US political landscape, hangs over Mullen’s book.

As things happened, however, it was survival, not simply the luxury of distance, that led Baldwin to finish his first novel about his Harlem childhood in Paris and Switzerland. He would complete Another Country, about his early years in the Village, in Istanbul, a detail he found significant enough to include at the novel’s end, as if assigning a dateline to a journalistic piece. Centering on a fictionalized version of Worth’s suicide, the novel portrayed bohemians who were not the dropouts from middle-class society often associated with coffeehouses, but an uneasy coalition of outcasts whose race, sexuality, or poverty set them apart from the start — exiles in their own country. (The FBI took note and considered banning the book, an impulse born of their obsession with queer and African-American literature.)

Baldwin would return to Istanbul and France throughout his life, and his final completed work, a play called The Welcome Table, depicted a dinner party populated by writers, activists, and artists from around the world, many of them exiles or stateless. One declares: “I hope to God never to see another flag, as long as I live. I would like to burn them all.” This contempt for borders, states, and, especially, American violence around the world is one of the most powerful aspects of Baldwin’s legacy to emerge in the book.

A Movement Voice

After returning to the United States in 1957, Baldwin achieved prominence as a journalistic chronicler of the Civil Rights Movement and an advocate for its aims. He wrote an important early profile of Martin Luther King in Vogue and spoke throughout the South at rallies for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), donating his speaking fees to the movement.

During this period he also moved away from the elements of Cold War liberalism that had shaped some of his earlier writing: the FBI first put Baldwin squarely in its sights when he signed on to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and used his platform to push for urgent causes, such as the imprisonment of Carl Braden, a left-wing organizer jailed for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and a new trail for the “Harlem Six,” a group of young men sentenced to life in prison after being beaten and tortured into confessions while in police custody.

The evolution of Baldwin’s political thought and writing during this stretch belies the familiar narrative of a hopeful movement toward desegregation followed by disillusionment: Baldwin saw things through an anticolonial lens early on, shaped by an interest in the nonaligned movement and the years he spent witnessing the impact of the Algerian War on France during his formative years there. When he condemned the Vietnam War, he did so in terms similar to Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech: as a participant in Bertrand Russell’s tribunal which sought to document and condemn war crimes.

The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s 1963 book, came out of his sympathetic engagement with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam; the leader’s religious struggles resonated with him deeply. And while Baldwin’s relationship to the Black Panthers was complicated by Eldridge Cleaver’s homophobic attacks against him, he formed deep relationships with others in the party, and the vitality of black nationalist culture was central to Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and other works of the period. For Baldwin, black nationalism was never a question of “separatism” or a departure from the struggle for civil rights; it was an expansion to an internationalist and, increasingly, a socialist vision.

His anti-imperial views also led him to advocate for Palestinian rights, later coming to the defense of civil rights veteran Andrew Young, who the Carter administration fired as US ambassador to the United Nations for meeting with a UN observer for the militant Palestine Liberation Organization.

Backlash

In the seventies and eighties, critics and the mainstream were quick to dismiss Baldwin as, in the words of one Times review, “unfashionable . . . a ghost of ’60s past.” The reverse was true. Baldwin continued to explore new creative genres and political currents, engaging with black feminism, the emerging gay liberation movement, and writing more about the plight of Palestinians and relations between Jews and African-Americans. Two books he published later in his career took the form of dialogues, one with Margaret Mead and one with Nikki Giovanni, reflecting his interest in the collective intellectual work he had honed in conversation with social movements.

Mullen describes this Reagan-era desire to deem Baldwin irrelevant “cultural blacklisting,” with Baldwin a “‘canary in the coal mine’ of what would be called the ‘culture wars.’” While Baldwin’s work has never disappeared, the strands Mullen emphasizes have been ignored or downplayed. In an echo of the de-radicalization of King’s memory, students are much more likely to encounter Baldwin’s early essays, with their emphasis on self-definition and the struggle against segregation, than later works that were critical of US global power and unabashedly queer.

In 2014, a New York Times story noted Baldwin’s relative absence from the curriculum of the New York City public schools that were so formative for him (and one of which bears his name). One principal quoted in the story argues for Baldwin’s relevance, noting: “Many of the struggles the students face are the same: self-identity, racism, drugs, and alcohol.” Yet this is an anemic rendering of Baldwin’s work, especially when contrasted with Baldwin’s own pedagogical vision, outlined in a lecture titled “A Talk to Teachers”:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person. And on the basis of the evidence — the moral and political evidence — one is compelled to say that this is a backwards country. I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect . . . I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful, and more terrible, but principally larger — and that it belongs to him.

Rediscovery

Fortunately, moments of political opening offer a way to rediscover cultural and radical traditions outside the classroom and the mainstream. After Baldwin’s death, scholars began to reconsider his work in the light of queer studies and gender studies. From today’s vantage point, Baldwin’s reluctance to claim a gay identity and insistence on the artificial, constructed nature of the category, which frustrated some activists, looks more like a prefiguration of today’s queer cultures. In Istanbul, he found relief from American and Christian sexual norms, and went on to direct the first play staged in Turkey with queer themes and characters. While not as well known as Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, in which sexual repression has tragic consequences, later works like Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone have present, fully realized queer characters, and his later essays examine androgyny and the impact of what he called “the male prison” on the violent role of the American state at home and around the world.

From his early writings about the Harlem of his youth — where he noted that police would still be an oppressive force even if they did nothing but hand out candy — the power of police and jail were central to his work. And his activism: from the Harlem Six to Angela Davis’s defense to the case of his friend Tony Maynard, who was charged with murder on flimsy evidence and whose story formed the basis of Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. Writing about Maynard’s case, Baldwin would articulate a core argument of today’s prison abolitionists: “I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law, as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned.”

That fact that the late works Beale Street and the unfinished Remember This House, the basis for the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, have recently found their way to the screen in widely seen films suggests space in the culture for the fullness of the radical Baldwin. An artist and a breathtaking stylist across many genres even as he felt called to be an activist, his work doesn’t offer a systematic analysis of how to build a movement or respond to our current moment of crisis and opportunity. But in the scale of his vision, and his willingness to move between writing that reported on the world, writing that imagined a different one, and solidarity with the movements striving to build it, he’s about as powerful a model as we have.