James Baldwin

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James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem. “[I]n those days,” he wrote in 1961, “that part of town was called The Hollow and now it’s called Junkie’s Hollow.” His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, had eight more children in the decade after his birth, and James became their de facto caretaker. “As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other.” His stepfather, David Baldwin, the son of a slave, was a preacher from New Orleans who beat James, his mother, and his brothers, and had him circumcised at the age of five.

Baldwin joined Countee Cullen’s French class at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in 1936, at age twelve, and was later, with Richard Avedon, Cullen’s student in high school. Baldwin interviewed Cullen, an esteemed poet and frequent Harper’s Magazine contributor, for the high school literary journal, The Magpie, of which he was literary editor. “Have you found that there is much prejudice against the Negro in the literary world?” Baldwin asked. “No,” Cullen replied, “in this field one gets pretty much what he deserves.”

For a short while, Baldwin was a child preacher; as a young man, he laid railroad track in New Jersey and toiled in a New York meatpacking plant. He was harassed for his homosexuality but came to accept it, and once roomed with Marlon Brando. His stepfather, David, was committed to a mental institution in 1943 and soon died of tuberculosis. “[A] few hours later, his last child was born,” James wrote in “Me and My House . . . ,” which was published in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s. David was buried on James’s nineteenth birthday, the same day a riot erupted in Harlem. “As we drove him to the graveyard,” James wrote, “the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us.”

In 1948, after writing an “unsalable” novel and a number of book reviews — “mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert” — Baldwin left the country in order to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” He departed for France on November 11, 1948.

His second novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, came out five years later, in 1953. That October Harper’s published “Stranger in the Village,” its first essay by Baldwin. “From all available evidence,” it began, “no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.” “Me and My House . . . ,” his second essay for the magazine, is widely regarded as his finest; it became the title piece of his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. His next novel, Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin called “another declaration of independence,” details an American expatriate’s homosexual affair with an Italian man. “One thing that Jimmy’s got that’s good is that he’s stubborn,” his brother David later remarked. “When they said, Giovanni’s Room will destroy your career, he said, ‘I’m sorry — that’ll have to happen.’ ”

Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957, the summer the Civil Rights Act was debated in Congress, and emerged as one of the foremost figures in what he called “the latest slave rebellion” — “or what American newspapers erroneously term the civil rights movement.” He was on the cover of the May 17, 1963, issue of Time, under the caption, “Birmingham and Beyond: The Negro’s Push for Equality.” The following week, Baldwin partook of a disappointing conversation on civil rights, organized at Robert Kennedy’s behest, with a group including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Rip Torn. Kennedy asserted during the discussion that, regardless of their differences, everyone in the room that day was blessed. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Baldwin retorted. “My life is not blessed. I live in hell.” Appearing on a public-television program to discuss race later that evening, he concluded: “There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it, how precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you’re going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority that you are here.”

Baldwin was prevented from speaking at the 1964 March on Washington (“They wouldn’t let him get up there because they know Baldwin is liable to say anything,” Malcolm X said), and in the early 1970s, after the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King., Jr., he returned to France, where on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, he died. He had authored six novels, seven essay collections, a short-story collection, two poetry collections, a photobook with Avedon, and a children’s story. Five thousand people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Odetta sang; Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and French ambassador Emmanuel de Margerie spoke; and the ceremony closed with a recording of Baldwin singing “Precious Lord.”

Quotation — From the April 1986 issue

The projects of poverty

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Wraparound — From the July 1974 issue

Wraparound

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Quotation — From the April 1965 issue

Their own negro

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Article — From the May 1963 issue

Letters from a journey

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Article — From the February 1961 issue

The dangerous road before Martin Luther King

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Article — From the October 1958 issue

The hard kind of courage

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It has become something of a commonplace to say that Mike Pence belongs to another era. He is a politician whom the New York Times has called a “throwback,” a “conservative proudly out of sync with his times,” and a “dangerous anachronism,” a man whose social policies and outspoken Christian faith are so redolent of the previous century’s culture wars that he appeared to have no future until, in the words of one journalist, he was plucked “off the political garbage heap” by Donald Trump and given new life. Pence’s rise to the vice presidency was not merely a personal advancement; it marked the return of religion and ideology to American politics at a time when the titles of political analyses were proclaiming the Twilight of Social Conservatism (2015) and the End of White Christian America (2016). It revealed the furious persistence of the religious right, an entity whose final demise was for so long considered imminent that even as white evangelicals came out in droves to support the Trump-Pence ticket, their enthusiasm was dismissed, in the Washington Post, as the movement’s “last spastic breath.”

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj
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Just after dawn in Lhamo, a small town on the northeastern corner of the Tibetan Plateau, horns summon the monks of Serti Monastery to prayer. Juniper incense smolders in the temple’s courtyard as monks begin arriving in huddled groups. Some walk the kora, a clockwise circumambulation around the building. Others hustle toward the main door, which sits just inside a porch decorated in bright thangka paintings. A pile of fur boots accumulates outside. When the last monks have arrived, the horn blowers leaning out of the second-floor windows retire indoors.

When I visited Lhamo in 2015, most monks at Serti attended the morning prayers, but not Ngawang Chötar, the vice president of the monastery’s management committee, or siguanhui. Instead, he could usually be found doing business somewhere on Lhamo’s main street. Like all Tibetan monks, he sports a buzz cut, and his gait, weighed down by dark crimson robes, resembles a penguin’s shuffle. When he forgets the password to his account on WeChat, China’s popular messaging service—a frequent occurrence—he waits for the town’s cell phone repairman at his favorite restaurant, piling the shells of sunflower seeds into a tidy mound.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton
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As he approached his death in 1987, the photographer Peter Hujar was all but unknown, with a murky reputation and a tiny, if elite, cult following. Slowly circling down what was then the hopeless spiral of ­AIDS, Peter had ceaselessly debated one decision, which he reached only with difficulty, and only when the end drew near. He was in a hospital bed when he made his will that summer, naming me the executor of his entire artistic estate—and also its sole owner.

The move transformed my life and induced a seething fury in lots of decent people. I can see why. Peter did not make me his heir for any of the usual reasons. I was a good and trusted friend, but he had scads of those. I was not the first person he considered for the job, nor was I the most qualified. In fact, I was a rank amateur, and my understanding of his art was limited. I knew his photographs were stunning, often upsetting, unpredictably beautiful, distinctively his. I also knew they were under­rated and neglected. But I did not then really grasp his achievement.

Photograph by Peter Hujar
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The friendly waitress at the Pretty Prairie Steak House delivers tumblers of tap water as soon as diners take their seats. Across Main Street, the Wagon Wheel Café offers the same courtesy. Customers may also order coffee or iced tea, but it all starts at the same tap, and everyone is fine with that. This blasé attitude about drinking water surprised me: everyone in this little farm town in Reno County, Kansas, knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that the liquid flowing from the municipal water tower was highly contaminated with nitrate, a chemical compound derived from fertilizer and connected to thyroid problems and various cancers. At the time I visited Pretty Prairie, last fall, nitrate levels there were more than double the federal standard for safe drinking water.

Illustration by Jen Renninger.
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The truth—that thing I thought I was telling.—John Ashbery To start with the facts: the chapter in my book White Sands called “Pilgrimage” is about a visit to the house where the philosopher Theodor Adorno lived in Los Angeles during the Second World War. It takes its title from the story of that name by Susan Sontag (recently republished in Debriefing: Collected Stories) about a visit she and her friend Merrill made to the house of Adorno’s fellow German exile Thomas Mann in the Pacific Palisades, in 1947, when she was fourteen. It seemed strange that the story was originally …
Photograph by Augusta Wood

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How to Make Your Own AR-15

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"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

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