Why James Baldwin still speaks to us
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 July 2018)

When the American government finally released the file on novelist James Baldwin that the FBI had been keeping for many years, it turned out to contain an astonishing 1,884 pages. That was a perverse tribute from the federal cops to Baldwin's eminence as author and seer in the 1960s. (By comparison, the Truman Capote file ran only 110 pages.) J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI and always on the alert for conspiracies, wanted everything his agents could learn about Baldwin -- his friends, his opinions, his life as a homosexual.

Hoover suspected Baldwin of a secret affinity with radical black leaders who threatened revolution. In truth, Baldwin's friendships with young leaders were entirely open. He made a point of knowing Stokely Carmichael, who spoke of Black Power while leading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and working with the Black Panthers.

That was Baldwin's style.

His insistence on being inside his subject, along with his beautiful prose, explains why his writing remains brilliantly alive in the 21st century, the time of Black Lives Matter and the outrage of African-Americans carelessly killed by police.

Baldwin is quoted often, he's the subject of a documentary film (I Am Not Your Negro), his books are published in the Library of America, a street in Harlem bears his name, and his face has appeared on a U.S. postal stamp. And his writing remains fresh. The first of the many Baldwin books I read, Notes of a Native Son (1955), remains both original and powerful.

He believed it was his duty to remain in touch with radical young African-Americans. He might not agree with them, but he understood the roots of their rage. If no one else would talk with them, he would. He honestly assessed his abilities and put them to work. He wrote in the 1950s, "All over Harlem, Negro boys and girls are growing into stunted maturity, trying desperately to find a place to stand; and the wonder is not that so many are ruined but that so many survive." His job, as he saw it, was to help them survive. His soul dictated his assignments.

Conscience also demanded openness about sexuality. His friends worried because his second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), focused on gay characters. Some years later, I asked him about that. "Well, my publisher didn't like it and he wouldn't publish it. But I had written it, so I had to bring it out." In another interview he recalled, "If I hadn't written that book I would probably have had to stop writing altogether. The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality." Ed Pavlic, in his Baldwin biography, has another comment from the author: "Giovanni's Room comes out of something that tormented and frightened me -- the question of my own sexuality. It also simplified my life in another way because it meant that I had no secrets."

Baldwin spent many years in France and had a house in St. Paul-de-Vence, where he died in 1987. His conscience nagged him for escaping from his main subject, black lives in America. One day in Paris he saw a picture of an ugly mob turning away a teenaged girl trying to attend school in the American South.

He felt ashamed of himself, comfortable in France while this 15-year-old was fighting for her rights. "Everybody else was paying their dues," he thought, and it was time he went home and paid his. He hurried to America and plunged right into articles about the South.

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