At the age of 14, James Baldwin realized for the first time that his future was in doubt. A Christian boy, he knew enough to fear the evil forces that flourished on the Avenue in Harlem -- whores, pimps and racketeers.
Many of his friends were clearly headed for crime and his stepfather, a preacher, said James was also headed that way. James ran into boys gathered in hallways to share a jug of wine or a bottle of whisky, sometimes cursing and fighting, talking about "the man" -- the white man.
His early observation of those friends created the prophet and author Baldwin became. The "wary, bewildered despair" (his phrase) that they exhibited became the core of black Americans he wrote about for the rest of his life. Over the years, Baldwin (1924-1987) learned to place himself prominently in his essays, compelling readers to take seriously his ideas about race and the larger and more comprehensive subject of America and its future. He developed a direct but honest and graceful prose style that left readers convinced of his genuine feelings. His New Yorker piece in 1962, Letter from a Region in My Mind, looked back on his experience as a 14-year-old.
That was the key to his first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), which converted many people, including me, into lifelong Baldwin readers. We made a point of reading his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a beautifully written depiction of religion in his childhood. He seemed to me the most effective and stirring American writer of the day. He wrote of race as the most pressing American issue of the era and he had more to say about it than anyone else.
Recently Baldwin's name has been appearing more often than usual (I wrote about him just last year). A not-bad documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated at the 2016 Academy Awards. The Barry Jenkins film version of If Beale Street Could Talk, based on Baldwin's late novel, is enjoying some success. In New York, Hilton Als has organized A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, an exhibition on right now at the Zwirner Gallery.
This is an attempt by Als to assert Baldwin's homosexual nature, which Baldwin never denied but seldom mentioned in print; possibly he didn't need another minority identification to deal with. "Baldwin is now being claimed as a kind of oracle," Als says, "but much gets erased about the great artist in the process, specifically his sexuality and aestheticism, both of which informed his politics. I wanted to reclaim him for myself and many others as a maverick queer artist that drew some of us to him in the first place."
Baldwin thought of himself as an optimist, not least when he imagined a future in which white Americans treated black Americans with respect and understanding. But on the way to that optimism, he said, "you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all."
In America, being black involved so many annoyances and embarrassments that he found himself growing angry more often than was good for him. In 1948 he began going to France for months at a time. He found peace there, and the right atmosphere for writing.
But an incident in 1957 changed his plans and altered his identity as a voice on civil rights.
On Sept. 4, white mobs spat on a 15-year-old girl as she entered a newly-integrated school in Charlotte, N.C. In France, Baldwin saw that on TV and felt compelled to return to the America as a writer and perhaps an activist.
"Each generation is promised," he wrote in Notes of a Native Son, "more than it will get: which creates, in each generation, a furious, bewildered rage." He toured the south, writing for Harper's and the Partisan Review (the Partisan paid a cent and a half a word). In 1963 his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine, citing him as a symbol of black hopes.
In his more optimistic moments, Baldwin imagined that the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks could "like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others." That process could "end the racial nightmare, change our country, and change the history of the world." This soaring and noble ambition, so strange when we come upon it in the words of a magazine writer, reminds me again why I have always loved Baldwin's work and why no one should doubt that his life was spent wisely.