On James Baldwin (1924–1987)

Go Tell It on the Mountain, its pages heavy with sinners brought low and prayers groaning on the wind, scared me when I read it as a teen-ager. I was afraid that around any corner in the story of how Johnny Grimes, “frog eyes,” came to be saved I ran the risk of exposure. It spoiled my wistful identification with The Catcher in the Rye, which all my friends were soaking up at the time. None of them had read Go Tell It on the Mountain, though, as did everyone else in the late 1960s, they knew what the name James Baldwin stood for. I was left alone with the book, as if it had been the little box at the bottom of the exam form that only I, as a black, was asked to pencil in. I thought I was better than Johnny, sweeping dust from a worn-out rug on his birthday, but I wasn’t sure that the trap of Harlem, 1935, was as long ago and far away as I wanted to believe.

The name James Baldwin had been around the house for as long as I could remember, and meant almost as much as that of Martin Luther King. The Fire Next Time, my parents tell me, had an explosive effect unlike anything else since Native Son or Invisible Man, and in part led to a settling of accounts and an opening of new ones. Some old-timers thought he was too far out, others were jealous of this storefront preacher’s Jamesian overlay—“slimy” was my grandfather’s word—but Baldwin’s prophetic voice was irresistible. It brought an intense moment of unity among Freedom Riders, professionals spawned by the GI Bill, the Blue Vein Circle that considered itself slandered by E. Franklin Frazier’s exposé, Black Bourgeoisie, and the many who did not think Frazier had gone far enough. In retrospect, Baldwin’s cry that blacks were of two minds about integration into a burning house seems hopeless since the power of a minority to threaten a majority with moral collapse depends on how much the majority cares. The climate of the times—perilous sit-ins and voter registration drives, murders and marches, songs of toil and deliverance—had everything to do with the sensation created by The Fire Next Time. Of course in those pre-Selma days no one believed that we’d ever have to walk alone.

Baldwin gave expression to the longings of blacks in exalted prose. He was embraced, in the tradition of Negro Firsterism, even by those who never sat down with a book, as our preeminent literary spokesman, whether he liked it or not. Neither athlete nor entertainer, but nevertheless a star. I do not know why it became fashionable among militants to dismiss him as absent without leave from the struggle, or as too moderate, conciliatory, a honky lover. He was, it seemed, always there, and he arrived on the stage in the apocalyptic mood. He filled my mind as the single enduring image of the black writer, an example…

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