Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography by Herb Boyd

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Revisionist study of James Baldwin's life fails to provide useful context.

Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography

Publisher: Atria
ISBN: 9780743293075
Author: Herb Boyd
Price: $24.00
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-01

It is becoming increasingly hard to remember what a towering figure James Baldwin once was.

His novels, often ambitious and experimental in the manner of the day, now seem dated because of their stylistic affectations, while the finer nonfiction, concerned almost exclusively with conflicts and injustices specific to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, are in danger of falling into the category of historical artifacts, like the writings of Upton Sinclair, say, or Henry Ward Beecher.

Add to that the way he is squeezed between renewed interest in his predecessors, the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and the literary and popular acclaim of successors like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker or John Edgar Wideman, and James Baldwin becomes a writer ripe for the kind of critical biography that might rehabilitate his reputation and return him to a rightful place in American letters.

Baldwin's Harlem, with its narrow focus on the writer's relationship with the famous neighborhood that bred him, is not that kind of book, so it would be churlish to grouse that Herb Boyd has failed to give Baldwin his due. Indeed, despite the subtitle, this is not even properly a biography, lacking both the scope and the detail biography requires.

But alas, while the theme is clever to the point of originality, Boyd has produced an odd combination of academic treatise and newspaper-style prose that manages to indulge the worst qualities of each.

Boyd explores important aspects of Baldwin's life and career, among them his childhood as an odd-looking and sensitive child in Harlem; his attacks on the older writers who nurtured him, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Richard Wright among them; his relationships with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.; the way in which he was attacked, on one hand, for currying favor with Jewish intellectuals, and vilified, on the other, for anti-Semitism. But Boyd treats all this in a way that provides no context for the reader not thoroughly schooled in Baldwin's life.

Indeed, Boyd devotes an entire chapter to the vicious lifelong jeremiad against Baldwin mounted by a mostly forgotten black intellectual gadfly named Harold Cruse. Despite the length lavished on Cruse, I had to look him up to get some notion of who he was and what the contretemps amounted to.

It would be one thing if Baldwin's Harlem were a "for-us, by-us" book, intended primarily for a black audience. But almost anyone reading in the 21st century -- black, white or other -- would be grateful for more than an objective reporting of the various aspects of Baldwin's life, especially coming willy-nilly, as they do here. That's not even to mention Boyd's skimpy treatment of Baldwin's homosexuality.

The central problem with Baldwin's Harlem is that there is not enough Boyd in it. Missing are the personality, biases and analytical intelligence that can make this kind of treatment a joy to read. Judging from his bona fides -- he's a teacher at two New York colleges and a writer with 18 books to his credit -- I doubt he is lacking in these qualities. Yet not until the very end does Boyd's sensibility enter the text, and it comes mostly in an appendix consisting of interviews with academic Michael Thelwell and poet Quincy Troupe.

Only then does Boyd emerge as a partisan of Baldwin the writer. Up until that point, going on the basis of Boyd's numbingly evenhanded presentation of the controversies surrounding Baldwin's various books at the time they were published, it would be almost impossible not to assume he shared those negative assessments.

What makes Baldwin's Harlem essential is that it does carry the day for Boyd's argument that Harlem, however much Baldwin wished to leave it behind, proved to be a constant theme and touchstone throughout his work and his life. Despite the book's considerable flaws, it does manage, however awkwardly, to cast both Baldwin and Harlem, so romanticized as a black oasis, in a fresh light that neither can now escape.

Harlem, by the way, has repaid Baldwin's disdain. As Boyd notes at the end of the book, in present-day Harlem there is no monument for Baldwin, among its greatest native sons, not so much as a plaque.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.