‘I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech — and something of Dickens’ love for bravura — have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for)…’
(James Baldwin, 1952)
As a Harlem teenager– the oldest of nine children – just prior to WWII, James Baldwin for a while emulated his father by becoming a preacher in a small Pentecostal church. Today we have no difficulty in finding the influence of Biblical cadence in Baldwin’s famously fluid and eloquent writing style. He wrote a great deal and wrote nearly all of it superbly, devouring subject matter, for he was (famously) by his own estimation “a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent and hungry black cat.” But his elegance never hid or was intended to hide the force of his feeling about racism in America, the subject he would address most powerfully in The Fire Next Time (1963). ‘No black man,’ he once wrote, ‘can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of the white man.’
In 2008 Finds had the honour of returning to print James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, which was based on Campbell’s ten-year-acquaintance with Baldwin prior to the great man’s death in 1987, alongside interviews with his friends and his extensive correspondences. It’s a fantastic study by one of the best literary critics at work today, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly. You can sneak-preview extracts here and here. And James Campbell wrote interestingly here for the Guardian on the biographer’s use of sources, Baldwin’s letters in his case.
This Saturday March 19 at 2pm the National Film Theatre in London (as part of its ‘African Odysseys’ strand) is screening I Heard It Through A Grapevine, a 1980 documentary by director Dick Fontaine and producer Pat Hartley made in collaboration with James Baldwin and his brother David. The piece is about the survivors of the civil rights movement, and the state of the movement’s ideals twenty years after its inception. It finds Baldwin – who quit the US for Paris in 1948 but returned to be a participant in the civil rights struggle – returning once again to those American cities where that struggle began, starting in Washington and ending in Mississippi, putting the questions ‘What has happened to these people? What happened to this country? And what does this mean for the world?’ As such it’s an essential watch for anyone versed in or seeking access to the field of Baldwin Studies.
Below are some fascinating samples of Baldwin from YouTube.
The first is a remarkable CBS TV roundtable from 1963, discussing Dr King’s March on Washington and involving Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Sidney Poitier.
The second is a piece of the debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge University Union on October 26, 1965, the motion being “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
The third is the opening of the excellent 1989 documentary study James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.