Under the Spell of James Baldwin

I Am Not Your Negro

a documentary film directed by Raoul Peck
Nancy Crampton
James Baldwin, New York City, 1976; photograph by Nancy Crampton

When James Baldwin died in 1987, at the age of sixty-three, he was seen as a spent force, a witness for the civil rights movement who had outlived his moment. Baldwin didn’t know when to shut up about the sins of the West and he went on about them in prose that seemed to lack the grace of voice that had made him famous. But that was the view of him mostly on the white side of town. Ever-militant Amiri Baraka, once scornful of Baldwin as a darling of white liberals, praised “Jimmy” in his eulogy as the creator of a contemporary American speech that we needed in order to talk to one another. Black people have always forgiven and taken back into the tribe the black stars who got kicked out of The Man’s heaven.

Baldwin left behind more than enough keepers of his flame. Even so, his revival has been astonishing. He is the subject of conferences, studies, and an academic journal, the James Baldwin Review. He is quoted everywhere; some of his words are embossed on a great wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of all the participants and witnesses from the civil rights era, Baldwin is just about the only one we still read on these matters. Not many pick up Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) or The Trumpet of Conscience (1967). We remember Malcolm X as an unparalleled orator, but after the collections of speeches there is only The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), an as-told-to story, an achievement shared with Alex Haley. Kenneth Clark’s work had a profound influence on Brown v. Board of Education, but as distinguished as his sociology was, nobody is rushing around campus having just discovered Clark’s Dark Ghetto (1965).

Baldwin said that Martin Luther King Jr., symbol of nonviolence, had done what no black leader had before him, which was “to carry the battle into the individual heart.” But he refused to condemn Malcolm X, King’s supposed violent alternative, because, he said, his bitterness articulated the sufferings of black people. These things could also describe Baldwin himself in his essays on race and US society. He may not have dealt with “this sociology and economics jazz,” as Harold Cruse complained of him in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), but the reconstruction of America was for him, even in his bleakest essays, firstly a moral question, a matter of conscience. And at his best he simply didn’t need the backup of statistics and dates. When it came to The Fire Next Time (1963), the evidence of his experience, the truth of American history, he could take perfect flight on his own.

Nothing breaks the spell cast by James Baldwin in Raoul…

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