Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
James Baldwin — the grandson of a slave — was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “Those three years in the pulpit – I didn’t realize it then – that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church, the language of the Bible, on Baldwin’s style: its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. He caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright – and though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, Baldwin left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it.
After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, Baldwin went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel. Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, was an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. Though not instantly recognized as such, Go Tell It on the Mountain has long been considered an American classic.
Over the next ten years, Baldwin moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty; the novels dealt with taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, Baldwin created socially relevant, psychologically penetrating literature … and readers responded. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became immediate bestsellers.
Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). This, too, was a bestseller: so incendiary that it put Baldwin on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality – in the essays of Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name and The Fire Next Time – became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness – but even though Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.
By 1987, when he died of stomach cancer at age 63, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.
Raoul Peck's galvanizing documentary I Am Not Your Negro reacquaints viewers with one of the most powerful voices of the civil rights era, the great novelist, playwright, and essayist James Baldwin. His 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a best seller in the U.S., squarely confronted white Americans with the moral cost of their apartheid government and for several years made him a prominent public figure. As Peck's archival clips illustrate, Baldwin was a captivating speaker, his bold language and dramatic cadences drawn right from the pulpit. His forbidding stepfather, David Baldwin, had been a Pentecostal preacher in Harlem, and 14-year-old James had followed him into the ministry, preaching the gospel for three years, before he'd turned his back on organized religion. Baldwin understood the theatrics of the sermon, and the apocalyptic tone he brought to his pronouncements on race is no less arresting now than it was 50 years ago.
The voice-over narration for I Am Not Your Negro, performed with atypical restraint by Samuel L. Jackson, consists entirely of Baldwin's thoughts, which Peck has cobbled together from more than a dozen texts. The two key sources, however, are unpublished documents he obtained from Gloria Karefa-Smart, Baldwin's sister and literary executor: a June 1979 letter from the writer to his agent, Jay Acton, and 30 pages of notes for a novel that Baldwin would never write, to chronicle the lives and deaths of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. "I want these three lives to bang against and reveal each other, as in truth they did," Baldwin explains, "and use their dreadful journey as a means of instructing people whom they loved so much, who betrayed them, and for whom they gave their lives." The book, to be called "Remember This House," would've exploited Baldwin's status as a civil rights insider. Yet his words wouldn't ring so powerfully today had he not instinctively thought of himself as an outsider.
Peck, a native of Haiti and director of two acclaimedfilms about the Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, grew up reading Baldwin, and he invests the writer's words with new meaning by pairing them with images from our own troubled times: of black citizens protesting police violence as military vehicles roll into Ferguson, Missouri, and of Trayvon Martin, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and other black children and teens who died violent deaths. Branching out from Baldwin's anecdotes about Evers, Malcolm, and King, Peck weaves in clips from Hollywood movies that shocked or otherwise shaped Baldwin or that illustrate his caustic thoughts on a racist popular culture. I Am Not Your Negro is a fascinating tour through Baldwin's mind, yet the documentary reveals relatively little about the writer's spiritual journey, which not only shaped his political rhetoric but also informed his relationships with King and Malcolm.
"I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my 'place' in this republic," Baldwin wrote of his early teenage years in The Fire Next Time. Presented with few options beyond a life of crime or a dead-end job, he "fled into the church." As Baldwin grew older, however, he began to recognize his own attraction to men, which put him at odds with the ministry. He also began to understand how much his stepfather's hatred for "white devils" fed his religious feeling. As Baldwin explains in Karen Thorsen's excellent 1989 documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, he began to see black evangelical Christianity as "a kind of fantasy revenge" in which blacks would be saved and whites damned.
With that background, Baldwin was naturally fascinated by King, also the son of a minister. Baldwin first met King in September 1957, when Baldwin was writing about the Montgomery bus boycott for Harper's and Partisan Review. By that time he'd published his novel Giovanni's Room, whose frank treatment of homosexual and bisexual characters might have made King more guarded around him. The two men would cross paths numerous times as Baldwin became a more important voice in civil rights, and according to biographer David Leeming, Baldwin was struck by King's willingness to serve as a symbol for the movement, which would inevitably make King the target of harassment. I Am Not Your Negro includes excerpts from a 1963 TV program in which psychologist Kenneth Clark presents a trilogy of one-on-one interviews with King, Malcolm, and Baldwin. The program highlights the growing philosophical conflict between King's nonviolence and Malcolm's more militant stance, a conflict that Baldwin was still trying to work out for himself.
Though skeptical of nonviolence as a political tactic, Baldwin was also alienated from the Nation of Islam, whose doctrinal hatred of whites reminded him too much of his stepfather. I Am Not Your Negro includes a sequence in which Baldwin remembers his first meeting with Malcolm: giving a lecture in New York, the writer looked up to see the impressively tall minister in the front row, leaning in toward him and staring intently, which so intimidated Baldwin that he "stumbled through" his presentation. Malcolm would have been every bit as judgmental as King about the writer's sexuality, and Baldwin was old enough to be familiar with Malcolm's legendary past as a Harlem hustler and thief named Malcolm Little. Yet Baldwin was electrified by Malcolm's message of black self-preservation. In one of the movie's interview clips, he attributes Malcolm's command over his listeners to his "[articulation of] their suffering, their suffering which has been in this country so long denied. That's Malcolm's authority over any of his audiences. He corroborates their reality."
Baldwin's relationship with Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, provides some of the more poignant moments in I Am Not Your Negro. They met in January 1963, when Baldwin arrived in Jackson on a speaking tour of the Deep South sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality, and during his stay he accompanied Evers on nighttime runs to question witnesses about the recent murder of a black man by a white storekeeper. Baldwin, who was terrified by the experience, sensed in Evers a resignation to his own inevitable death, and during their visit Evers told him about the tree he'd passed every day as a boy, from whose branches hung shreds of clothing from a lynching victim. I Am Not Your Negro includes Baldwin's recollection of their last meeting, when he came over to Evers's little ranch house to sign some books for him and his wife. In June 1963, Evers was shot to death in his own driveway, with his wife and children watching at the window, by a local member of the White Citizens' Council.
Somehow Baldwin managed to transmogrify all this into a play, Blues for Mister Charlie, that would stand as his signal literary contribution to the civil rights era after The Fire Next Time. For years he had planned to write the story of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman; in the play Till becomes a grown man burning with the same sort of rage that animated Malcolm. When he speaks of driving the white race into the sea, his grandmother warns him, "You're gonna make yourself sick with hatred," to which he replies, "I'll gonna make myself well with hatred." His father, a minister trying to work within the system, embodies King's philosophy of nonviolence and slow progress. Blues for Mister Charlie represents Baldwin's attempt to work out the conflict between King and Malcolm, and yet the writer who reflects on his two friends a decade later in I Am Not Your Negro comes up with a surprising assessment: "I watched two men coming from unimaginably different backgrounds, whose positions originally were poles apart, driven closer and closer together. By the time each died, their positions had become virtually the same position. It can be said, indeed, that Martin picked up Malcolm's burden, articulated the vision which Malcolm had begun to see, and for which he paid with his life."
Baldwin began to pull away from the struggle in late 1965 when, devastated by the end of a love affair, he moved to Istanbul. "I was never in town to stay," he says of his civil rights activism in I Am Not Your Negro. Baldwin felt he could contribute best not as a participant but as a witness, to "get the story out." Ironically, as he relates in the film, when he heard the news of King's assassination in April 1968, he was in Hollywood with actor Billy Dee Williams, trying to get financing for a biopic about Malcolm X. (His script would never be filmed, though Spike Lee would deliver his own Malcolm X in 1992.) A decade later, Baldwin's agent got him the biggest advance of his career for "Remember This House," which would give him another shot at Malcolm's story. But as Baldwin observes in the movie, writing it would mean returning to the south to interview Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers, Betty Shabazz, and each woman's children. "It means exposing myself as one of the witnesses to the lives and deaths of their famous fathers," he notes with some dread, "and it means much, much more than that." Apparently, it meant too much.
Peck may not be able to get inside the spiritual struggle that made Baldwin such a complex figure, but I Am Not Your Negro, with its frequent reminders that there are still two Americas, proves that Baldwin's writing has lost none of its currency. Baldwin never joined the Nation of Islam, he explains, "because I did not believe that all white people were devils, and I did not want young black people to believe that. I was not a member of any Christian congregation, because I knew that they had not heard and did not live by the commandment 'Love one another as I love you.' And I was not a member of the NAACP, because in the north, where I grew up, the NAACP was fatally entangled with black class distinctions, or illusions of the same, which repelled a shoeshine boy like me." Baldwin came at the racial crisis not as a congregant but as an individual, which is how he managed to connect across racial lines and, now, reaches across generations. v