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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On a sunny July day in 2018, Alexis Stern was sitting behind the wheel of the red Ford Fusion her parents had given her the previous year when she’d learned to drive. Robbie Olsen, the boy she’d recently started dating, was in the passenger seat. They were in the kind of high spirits unique to teenagers on summer vacation with nothing much to do and nowhere in particular to go. They were about to take a drive, maybe get some food, when Stern’s phone buzzed. It was the police. An officer with the local department told her to come down to the station immediately. She had no idea what the cops might want with her. “I was like, am I going to get arrested?” she said.

Stern had graduated from high school the month before, in Big Lake, Minnesota, a former resort town turned exurb, forty miles northwest of the Twin Cities. So far she had spent the summer visiting family, hanging out with her new boyfriend, and writing what she describes as “action-packed and brutal sci-fi fantasy fiction.” At sixteen, she’d self-published her first novel, Inner Monster, about a secret agent named Justin Redfield whose mind has been invaded by a malevolent alter ego that puts the lives of his loved ones at risk. “It isn’t until his inner demon returns that he realizes how much trouble he really is in,” the synopsis reads. “Facing issues with his girlfriend and attempting to gain control of his dark side, the tension intensifies. Being the best agent comes at a price, a price of kidnapping, torture and even death.

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I had been in Domoni—an ancient, ramshackle trading town on the volcanic island of Anjouan—for only a few summer days in 2018 when Onzardine Attoumane, a local English teacher, offered to show me around the medina. Already I had gotten lost several times trying to navigate the dozens of narrow, seemingly indistinguishable alleyways that zigzagged around the old town’s crumbling, lava-rock homes. But Onzardine had grown up in Domoni and was intimately familiar with its contours.

Stocky in build, with small, deep-set eyes and neatly trimmed stubble, Onzardine led me through the backstreets, our route flanked by ferns and weeds sprouting from cracks in the walls and marked by occasional piles of rubble. After a few minutes, we emerged onto a sunlit cliff offering views of the mustard-colored hills that surround the town, dotted with mango, palm, and breadfruit trees. We clambered down a trail, past scrawny goats foraging through piles of discarded plastic bottles, broken flip-flops, and corroded aluminum cans, toward a ledge where a dozen young men were waiting for the fishing boats to return to shore, gazing blankly out across the sea.

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Vicious Cycles·

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This is what I feared, that she would speak about the news . . . about how her father always said that the news exists so it can disappear, this is the point of news, whatever story, wherever it is happening. We depend on the news to disappear . . .
—Don DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle”

What a story. What a fucking story.
—Dean Baquet, on the election of Donald Trump

a circular conversation

What is the news? That which is new. But everything is new: a flower blooms; a man hugs his daughter, not for the first time, but for the first time this time . . . That which is important and new. Important in what sense? In being consequential. And this has been measured? What? The relationship between what is covered in the news and what is consequential. Not measured. Why? Its consequence is ensured. Ensured. . . ? It’s in the news. But then who makes it news? Editors. Editors dictate consequence? Not entirely. Not entirely? It matters what people read and watch—you can’t bore them. Then boredom decides? Boredom and a sense of what’s important. But what is important? What’s in the news.

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The Forty-Year Rehearsal·

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On the evening of May 8, just after eight o’clock, Kate Valk stepped onstage and faced the audience. The little playhouse was packed with hardcore fans, theater people and artists, but Kate was performing, most of all, for one person, hidden among them, a small, fine-boned, black-clad woman, her blond-gray hair up in a clip, who smiled, laughed, and nodded along with every word, swaying to the music and mirroring the emotions of the performers while whispering into the ear of the tall, bearded fellow who sat beside her madly scribbling notes. The woman was Elizabeth LeCompte—known to all as Liz—the director of the Wooster Group, watching the first open performance of the company’s new piece, Since I Can Remember.

It had been a tense day, full of opening-night drama. Gareth Hobbs, who would be playing a leading role, had been sick in bed for days with a 103-degree fever, and he’d only arrived at the theater, still shaky, at three-thirty that afternoon. During the final closed rehearsal, performer Suzzy Roche fell on her elbow, then felt faint and had to lie prone while her colleagues fanned her and fetched ice. At one point, Erin Mullin, the stage manager as well as a performer, shouted: “We have one hour left, and we’re on page eight of fifty!” Not to mention that the piece still had no ending.

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Election Bias·

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In the spring of 2018, Tequila Johnson, an African-American administrator at Tennessee State University, led a mass voter-registration drive organized by a coalition of activist groups called the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Turnout in Tennessee regularly ranks near the bottom among U.S. states, just ahead of Texas. At the time, only 65 percent of the state’s voting-age population was registered to vote, the shortfall largely among black and low-income citizens. “The African-American community has been shut out of the process, and voter suppression has really widened that gap,” Johnson told me. “I felt I had to do something.”

The drive generated ninety thousand applications. Though large numbers of the forms were promptly rejected by election officials, allegedly because they were incomplete or contained errors, turnout surged in that year’s elections, especially in the areas around Memphis and Nashville, two of the cities specifically targeted by the registration drive. Progressive candidates and causes achieved notable successes, capturing the mayor’s office in heavily populated Shelby County as well as several seats on the county commission. In Nashville, a local measure was passed introducing a police-accountability board.

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Jesus Plus Nothing

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At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

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