Harlem’s Pearl: James Baldwin

The American idea of progress is how fast I become white. And it’s a trick bag. Because they know perfectly well I can never become white. I have drunk my share of dry martinis; I have proven myself civilized in every way I can. But there is an irreducible difficulty: something doesn’t work. Well, I decided: I might as well act like a nigger.

— James Baldwin, UC Berkeley, 19791

A dangerous individual.

— F.B.I. field report2

Grandson of a slave, the eldest of nine children in a Harlem family rooted in bitter poverty, he grew up amidst junkies, winos, pimps, racketeers, pick-pockets, and con-artists.

Surrounded by despair, he took refuge in literature, reading with such focused intensity that his mother took to hiding his books.3 He knew the Bible so well he became a teen sensation in the pulpit, luxuriating in Old Testament rhetoric and poetry. By then he had devoured everything he could get his hands on close to home. “There were two libraries in Harlem,” he remembered, “and by the time I was thirteen I had read every book in both libraries and I had a card downtown for Forty-second street.”4

His brilliance stood out. One of his teachers, a Communist with a Theatre Project job thanks to the WPA, began giving him books and taking him to plays and movies and museums, nurturing his keen mind while teaching him an ironic lesson about the supposed master race: “She gave me my first key, my first clue that white people were human,” Baldwin said.5

Racism affected everything, often in unexpected ways. Baldwin, for example, had learned from his mother to always offer his seat to a woman when he rode the subway. But in church some preachers taught that he should never surrender his seat to a white woman, because that would be “an act of servility.” Baldwin solved the conundrum by never sitting down on the subway.6  But other racial dilemmas were not so easily side-stepped, such as when two police officers beat him “half to death” when he was but ten years old.7

Somehow emerging literate, self-assured, and honest in a world that defined him as but a half-step removed from jungle savagery, he found himself perpetually in danger of doing or saying something that would trigger disaster. At 18, he lost control of his suppressed rage and hurled a glass of water at a waitress who had refused him service in a segregated New Jersey restaurant, watching along with the astonished patrons as it shattered against the mirror behind the bar. The following year Harlem erupted in a race riot as he buried his father, whose rage had consumed him long before the tuberculosis that finished him off. Five years after that, young James had had more than enough of the brutalities of American life and fled the U.S. “about five minutes before being carried off to Bellevue.”8

Reaching Paris with $40 to his name and no French, he spent his nights there on park benches consoling the victims of France’s Algeria campaign, while his pent-up bitterness at all he had endured in the U.S. came spilling out.9 For an entire year he was busy “breaking up bars, knocking down people,” he later remembered, eventually ending up in jail. “You’ve been taught that you’re inferior,” he explained, “so you act as though you’re inferior. And on the level that is very difficult to get at, you really believe it.”10

When the chaos subsided, Baldwin discovered that his life had at last become personal, allowing him a detached look at the crippling racial obsession ravaging his native land. Like an Old Testament prophet he sounded the alarm in the pages of The Fire Next Time: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.” He saved his richest contempt for the willfully blind: “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”11

Brilliant, driven, deeply troubled, he warned that time was running out to atone for slavery. “If we do not now dare everything,” he wrote, “the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”12

Baldwin’s soaring rhetoric landed with a sickening thud against the deaf ears of the liberal establishment, which was busy dragging its feet in response to a civil rights movement that Baldwin more accurately called America’s latest “slave rebellion.”13 Embarrassed by the screaming headlines and distressed at the propaganda coup the USSR was reaping from racial upheaval in the U.S., the Kennedy administration moved only reluctantly and belatedly to support the black freedom movement.14  While blacks were set upon by mobs, clubbed with lead pipes, and shot, bombed, jailed, and killed, Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s FBI agents took notes and filed reports, but made no general move to enforce the law against rioting police and KKK vigilantes. Concerned about losing support in Congress, JFK opted to shore up his southern political base, appointing racist judges to the bench, including one in Georgia who sought to prevent “pinks, radicals and black voters” from overturning segregation, and another in Mississippi who saw no point in registering “a bunch of niggers on a voter drive.”15

In the midst of all this, Baldwin sent Attorney General Robert Kennedy a telegram taking the Kennedy administration to task for the siege of Birmingham, and Kennedy responded by inviting him to assemble a group of black luminaries for a meeting in his New York apartment. It didn’t go well. Baldwin’s brother David shook a fist in Kennedy’s face. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry blasted the “specimens of white manhood” portrayed in a recent Time magazine photo: Alabama police pinning a black woman to the ground with a knee to her throat, better known today as the George Floyd maneuver. Lena Horne suggested sarcastically that Kennedy try promoting his policy of Jim Crow collaboration to Harlem residents, but warned that “we ain’t going, because we don’t want to get shot.” Freedom Rider Jerome Smith, crippled for life from a Mississippi beating, said he was nauseated to have to meet with Kennedy at all (in order to have his rights respected). He told the shocked Attorney General that he could no longer conceive of fighting for his country in uniform, but was nearly ready to pick up a gun against it.

Baldwin and his guests pleaded with Kennedy to have the president send troops to quell racist violence in Birmingham, and demanded to know why he himself hadn’t escorted James Meredith when be became the first black student to register at Ole Miss.

Kennedy laughed.

Failing to see anything funny, Baldwin and his group demanded a demonstration of moral commitment by the White House. The President, they insisted, should escort a black child into a Deep South school, so that any racist who spat on that child would also be spitting on the nation.

Kennedy dismissed the idea as a meaningless moral gesture. Son of a bootlegger, helped into office by Mob connections, he recommended that blacks pull themselves up the way his family did. With luck, he concluded brightly, one of them might be president in forty years.

Forty more years and blacks might get relief from racist terror — on top of the 400 years they had already endured – and then only if they behaved themselves! Baldwin told Kennedy his comment was absurd. The point was, he said, that a Kennedy could already be president, while blacks, who had arrived in America long before the Irish Catholics, were “still required to supplicate and beg for justice.”

When Kennedy remained unmoved and unmovable, Baldwin emerged from the meeting profoundly depressed, pronouncing him “insensitive and unresponsive to the Negro’s torment.”16  The FBI marked him down as a “Communist,” and though he flew all the way from Paris, he was not allowed to speak to the March on Washington three months later,17 where Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. Eighteen days after that speech a bomb exploded in Birmingham, blasting four black girls attending Sunday school into eternity.

Dreams are one thing; change, quite another.

Though Baldwin regarded himself as “at bottom an optimist,”18 he gradually gave up hope that the United States would change, as a string of assassinations (Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark) made it increasingly obvious it had no intention of doing so. To the extent the country defined itself as white, he thought, to that same extent it was irrelevant. Change would come, but from elsewhere.

When Black Power emerged and Baldwin expressed sympathies for a new generation of black radicals, white liberals often expressed consternation at what they saw as his retreat from integration and reconciliation. Baldwin took a certain pleasure in setting them straight:19 white people had long ago (forcefully) integrated the country, he reminded them, the facts not being subject to dispute, as “my grandmother never raped nobody.”20 Furthermore, the “negro problem” was actually a “white problem,” as it was they who invented the “nigger” fantasy, and they who were continually tormented by it. The burden was on them to discover why.21 Until they did, all talk of racial reconciliation was premature, if not consciously diversionary.

Such relentless honesty proved hard to handle even for the most balanced and resourceful minds. In a three-part discussion with Baldwin in August, 1970, Margaret Mead’s detailed anthropological and historical knowledge checked Baldwin’s tendency toward poetic exaggeration through seven fascinating hours of wide-ranging conversation. But when Israel-Palestine came up, Baldwin’s passion for truth proved more reliable than Mead’s faltering reason. “I have been the Arab, in America, at the hands of the Jews,” he said, denouncing Israel’s 1948 displacement of the Palestinians by “an entirely irreligious people” based incongruously on “something that is written down by Jehovah on a tablet.” Mead lost her composure at this, and accused Baldwin of making a racist comment, “just because there have been a bunch of Jewish shopkeepers in Harlem.”22

But there was no trace of anti-Semitism in Baldwin then, or at any other time in his career. He was just telling the truth.

And he never stopped. In 1974, he won the Cathedral of St. John the Divine’s centennial medal for the “artist as prophet,” and was invited to address a congregation for the first time since his teen years. Using the Old Testament story of David slaying Goliath and the Philistines, the diminutive Baldwin let loose a blast of hyper-articulate fury at the U.S. “betrayal” of its black brethren, and thunderously dismissed President Nixon as a “motherfucker.”

The sub-dean of the cathedral, unhappy with the tone of the service, confided to the dean: “No one ever before has said ‘motherfucker’ from the pulpit of St. John the Divine.”

The Dean replied that times had changed: “It’s about time someone did.”23

Thirteen years later, Baldwin’s funeral took place in that very same church, and mourners celebrated his wildly improbable and incredibly abundant life. Maya Angelou called him a “great soul.”24  Toni Morrison remembered that “the season was always Christmas” when he was around, and thanked him for replacing evasion and hypocrisy with clarity and beauty in his 6895 pages of published work.25  Amiri Baraka praised his “insistent elegance” and ranked the importance of his work with Dr. King and Malcolm X.26

Of course, taking fair measure of a life lived on three continents, and dedicated to human liberation by embracing every vulnerability, probing all weaknesses, and excavating the most deeply buried truths is an impossible task. Perhaps all one can say is that — by the power of his spoken and written words — Baldwin transformed a horrifying legacy of pain and rage into grace and light.

It’s hard not to be grateful for that.

Had he lived, Baldwin would have turned 96 years old today. Happy Birthday, James, and well done!

  1. Reflections of James Baldwin, C-SPAN, March 3, 2007. []
  2. William J. Maxwell, James Baldwin – The FBI File (Arcade Publishing, 2017) Chapter 21, p. 167. []
  3. W. J. Weatherby, James Baldwin – Artist on Fire, (Donald I. Fine, 1989) p. 15. []
  4. James Baldwin and Margaret Mead – A Rap on Race, (J. B. Lippincott, 1971) pps. 45-6. []
  5. Ibid., p. 31. []
  6. Ibid., p. 55. []
  7. Ibid., p. 213. []
  8. Ibid., p. 56. []
  9. Ibid., p. 242. []
  10. Ibid., p. 57. []
  11. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (Dell, 1962) pps. 15-16. []
  12. The Fire Next Time, p. 141. []
  13. Reflections of James Baldwin, speech at UC Berkeley, January 15, 1979 (broadcast on C-SPAN 3 March 3, 2007). []
  14. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper, 1980) p. 445; Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, pps. 117-18 []
  15. Tom Hayden, Reunion – A Memoir, (Random House, 1988) p. 59. []
  16. The account of the Bobby Kennedy meeting is from: James Campbell, Talking At The Gates – A Life of James Baldwin, (Viking, 1991) pps. 163-5; David Leeming, James Baldwin – A Biography, (Henry Holt, 1994) pps. 222-6; W. J. Weatherby, James Baldwin – Artist on Fire, (Donald I. Fine, 1989) pps. 221-4. []
  17. Leeming, p. 296. []
  18. A Rap on Race, p. 88. []
  19. Leeming, p. 185. []
  20. Baldwin 1965 Cambridge Union debate with William F. Buckley Jr. []
  21. I Am Not Your Negro (film). []
  22. A Rap on Race, pps. 215-16. []
  23. Leeming, p. 322. []
  24. Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall,” bookpatrol.net, May 29, 2014. []
  25. Toni Morrison, “James Baldwin: His Voice Remembered – Life In His Language” New York Times, December 20, 1987. []
  26. Amiri Baraka, “James Baldwin, “His Voice Remembered – We Carry Him With Us” New York Times, December 20, 1987. []
Michael K. Smith is the author of The Madness of King George from Common Courage Press. He co-blogs with Frank Scott at www.legalienate.blogspot.com. Read other articles by Michael.