Born On This Day, 1924: James Baldwin

Jim Burroway

August 2nd, 2016

More fully American in Paris.

(d. 1987) He was born to poverty in Harlem, the son of a Pentecostal preacher and a mother with, as he put it, “the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies.” As he grew older, his father groomed him for the family business of saving souls, but when Baldwin turned seventeen, he left the business and his home and journeyed to an entirely different world in the Village. He began writing book reviews for the New York Times, focusing on books about “the Negro problem, which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” Some of his essays led to a few fellowships which allowed him to leave New York for France, where he stayed for the next six years and would spend the better part of his life.

While in Europe, Baldwin learned two surprising things: 1) that he was never before more thoroughly an American as he was the moment he landed on French soil, and 2) “I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people.” And from working through those two issues, he came to a profound realization: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” He also worked through his ambivalence of what it was to be an American. “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Baldwin’s first novel, 1953’s semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, was written during his first sojourn to France and became an instant American classic. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son came out two years later. Despite his success, his publisher turned down his third novel, Giovanni’s Room. The problem was that Baldwin, this time, had tried to break two barriers. The first was that Baldwin’s characters were all white, but  Baldwin was an established Negro writer. This book, they feared, would alienate his audience and ruin his career.

Of course, Giovanni’s Room broke a second barrier; the two main protagonists were gay lovers. And yet the themes were similar to those confronted in Baldwin’s two earlier works. Just as Baldwin had to escape New York so he could work out the alienation he felt for the land that he loved, the American “David” in Giovanni’s Room had also found himself in Paris, torn between the expectations of marriage to his fiancé and the love that he felt for his Italian lover. Other novels — 1962’s Another Country and 1968’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone — also dealt unflinchingly with gay and bisexual themes. In an essay that was included in the 1961 collection Nobody Knows My Name, he tackled the argument that homosexuality was somehow unnatural:

…To ask whether or not homosexuality is natural is really like asking whether or not it was natural for Socrates to swallow hemlock, whether or not it was natural for St. Paul to suffer for the Gospel, whether or not it was natural for the Germans to send upwards of six million people to an extremely twentieth-century death. It does not seem to me that nature helps us very much when we need illumination in human affairs. I am certainly convinced that it is one of the greatest impulses of mankind to arrive at something higher than a natural state. How to be natural does not seem to me to be a problem — quite the contrary. The greatest problem is how to be — in the best sense of that kaleidoscopic word — a man.

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