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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Article — From the November 1955 issue

Me and my House . . .

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Article — From the October 1953 issue

Stranger in the village

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I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

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Common Ground·

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

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The Black Axe·

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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Who Is She?·

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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Murder Italian Style·

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of personal-injury lawyer George Sink Sr., who had sued his son, George Sink Jr., for using his own name at his competing law firm.

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