The Incendiary Life and Times of James Baldwin

James Baldwin: Living in Fire
Bill V. Mullen
Pluto Press
September 2019

That James Baldwin’s relationship with his home country was fraught for the bulk of his relatively brief life is an understatement. Living as a closeted black homosexual man in a country that would not pass a major Civil Rights Bill until the mid-’60s and not acknowledge the possibility of non-binary gender identification until much later, Baldwin emigrated to Paris in 1948, at the age of 24. He spent most of his life commenting on his country from afar, working and reporting on major US Civil Rights events and figures. He died on 1 December 1987, and at that point the 63-year-old African-American author’s important legacy had been cemented in the canon of American literature. While he could not claim a Pulitzer or Nobel in his list of credits, his writing about race, class, politics, and sexuality was always fearless, never quiet, and it surrendered nothing.

Bill V. Mullen‘s James Baldwin: Living in Fire is an intense, concentrated, brief examination of Baldwin. It is less a biography and more an examination of legacy, intentions, strengths, and weaknesses, and that’s in keeping with the mission of the fine Pluto Press series, “Revolutionary Lives“. The idea is to reclaim from other biographers who might have “erased their [subject’s] radicalism” in favor of something that might be more sanitized, more palatable for the general public. But Baldwin’s mere presence on the scene as a dynamic public speaker and intellectual was considered an intense threat to many people in the white majority.

Mullen carefully navigates through Baldwin’s initial blossoming as a young gay man moving to Paris in 1948 as a way to “…reconcile what he called the ‘mystery’ of his sexuality.” Baldwin sparred with an apparently homophobic Richard Wright, a brazenly homophobic Eldridge Cleaver, all along never failing to live his own truth:

…Baldwin’s famous and long periods of exile from the U.S. were also platforms to live and write a queer life…to dissect his homeland as a place that functioned to repress, depress, or destroy young black men like himself.

It’s within the context of our contemporary times that Mullen’s biography comes as a refreshing and welcome examination of a life powerfully and honestly lived. Years before our current climate, where discussions of identity are regularly and openly shared, Baldwin was fighting for the right to define himself within the context of how we defined femininity and masculinity. Consider this response from Baldwin during an interview with African-American lesbian poet Audre Lorde and wonder how it was processed in Ronald Reagan’s hyper-masculine 1980s America:

I do not blame black men for what they are. I’m asking them to move beyond…we have to take a new look at…[how]…we fight our joint oppression…We have to begin to redefine the terms of what woman is, what man is, how we relate to each other.

This is what makes Mullen’s book so powerful and important in these times, especially in the emergence of Black Lives Matter after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. Ta-Nehishi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a sublime extension (in style and tone) of Baldwin’s 1963 text, The Fire Next Time, both impassioned letters about race and identity to the generations that would follow. Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro uses Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s words, archival footage of Baldwin and many others, and source material from a project Baldwin had intended to call Remember This House to give voice to the struggles that are still happening.

Barry Jenkins’ almost impossibly beautiful and heartbreaking 2018 film adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, gives voice to the man’s insistence that institutionalized racism within the US Penal System was as relevant then as it is now. The past is prologue to the present and a mirror reflection of the future if we don’t open up and maintain a dialogue about racism and America’s racist history.

In Chapter One, “Baptism by Fire: Childhood and Youth, 1924-42”, Mullen introduces us to a Baldwin born in poverty, amongst many other siblings. He was devoted to a mother who would survive him by 12 years and live in a relatively comfortable stability. Baldwin hears the calling and becomes a young Pentecostal Minister, an experience that would power his 1954 debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. It quickly becomes clear that any reflections from Baldwin will make this biography only stronger, and Mullen uses that to his advantage. Consider this quote from Baldwin’s late in life masterful essay ” Freaks and the Idea of American ManhoodAmerican Manhood“:

I didn’t have any human value. And that was why I joined the church.

Baldwin immerses himself in the works of Dickens and Henry James. One of his English teachers at New York City’s DeWitt Clinton, Abel Meeropol, wrote the lyrics for what would become the blues standard, most famously sung by Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit”. Baldwin meets Beauford Delaney, a man who would have a profound influence on his life, “…the first walking living proof…that a black man could be an artist…” In late 1963, reflecting on the educational system, Baldwin would say that any Negro “…who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.”

Mullen draws from the work of previous Baldwin biographers (James Campbell and David Leeming) examining Baldwin’s perspective that surviving a harsh life of “Dissidence, Disillusionment, Resistance” (title of Chapter Two) noting that his subject’s affinity towards Karl Marx has heretofore been unexplored. Baldwin’s politically progressive tendencies were shaped by Jewish classmates. He joined YPSL (the youth group of the Socialist Party) and gravitated towards other gay artists like poet Claude McKay and author Alaine Locke. Baldwin apparently hesitated affiliating himself with the communist Worker’s Party because of “…an uneasiness about the relationship of organized politics to art…” This is a major theme that runs through most of Mullen’s book, and it’s a convincingly argued position. Mullen writes:

…Baldwin was seeking a systematic alternative to the world of the United States that he knew…that had nearly driven him to murder…taken his father in tubercular madness…threatening to drive him to the deepest levels of poverty…

Baldwin started making his name as a book reviewer, using his forum to “…introduce into his public writing incipient queer themes and thoughts.” He moved to France in 1948 with approximately $40 in his pocket. Soon, others gravitated to him, including Truman Capote and Saul Bellow. Baldwin’s excoriation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, embodied by its hero Bigger Thomas, seemed to reflect a fear of the activist novel, an anger about how black identity was represented to the rest of the world:

For Baldwin, Bigger was himself a narrow, reductive stereotype of black life. ‘All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear.’

Mullen goes deeper into his question about the motivations of this young cub going after the older lions. He believes Baldwin “…was also in the process of imagining, creating, and queering new types of ‘native sons’…” Mullen looks at the four themes of Baldwin’s early literature: the “…historical ties of southern black migrants to the North back to the South”, the difficult and restricted lives of black women, queer sexuality, and the connection between music and language. Baldwin writes a play (The Amen Corner) and connects himself with The Actor’s Studio. Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan enter the picture.

Mullen notes that Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room was a powerful and brave early depiction of an interracial homosexual relationship. Again, the bravery cost him a lot (especially increased FBI surveillance) but it has “…since been recovered as a landmark in queer writing in the U.S. and an avatar of contemporary gay literature.”

Mullen continues: “…Giovanni’s Room both anticipated and predicted insights from what would become queer theory…By the time the AIDS crisis reached America in the 1980s, Baldwin would be forced to become, reluctantly, a spokesperson for its devastation.”

The years 1957-1963 were intense, frenetic for Baldwin. He returned to America in 1957 “…to be a witness to history, and to walk in the struggle.” Baldwin works with people like Coretta Scott King on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. Of particular note here is the passage about William Faulkner, who understandably angered Baldwin by declaring “…that if it came to a contest between the state of Mississippi and the federal government he would fight for Mississippi, ‘even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes.'”

Mullen manages to tie together Baldwin’s travels with his vision of making the national battle for civil rights international. Whether it was Little Rock, Paris, Algiers, or Montgomery, the struggle was real and all the participants were connected.

Mullen makes Baldwin’s fears feel palpable. “I may spit on a sidewalk and vanish,” Baldwin writes, and after the 1955 brutal murder of 14-year-old-African-American Emmet Till, the fear of violence against him loomed large. Relatedly Baldwin wonders about integration with his typically incisive imagery: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Mullen carefully lays out his argument that Baldwin was a reluctant radical who didn’t immediately enter the struggle, but when he did it was all or nothing. His work was only embellished and enhanced by his activism. His 1962 novel Another Country seemed to follow the notion that the personal was political, and here it was sexuality:

Primarily…the taboo is the domain of sex and race…queer, bisexual, and heterosexual impulses without ever articulating a ‘position’ on these questions.

Again, while the articulation might not have happened, the reader could argue that the mere act of writing this novel was the strongest political statement. As the Black Power movement came to prominence, Baldwin eventually entered the fray. He started by speaking with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), where he promoted the idea of activists seeing themselves as agents of change while at the same time studying and learning from US history. Baldwin’s connection with the Pentecostal Church seemed to provide him with a more nuanced understanding of the Nation of Islam’s intense preaching of separatism and “the white devil”.

On 18 February1965, Baldwin debates conservative commentator William F. Buckley at Cambridge University about the legitimacy of the American dream. He summarizes his relationship to American popular culture:

…by describing watching American movies as a child, not realizing that in the cowboy and Indian Western, ‘the Indian was you.’

In Chapter 6, “Morbid Symptoms and Optimism of the Will: 1968-1979”, Mullen covers Baldwin’s clash with author and activist Eldridge Cleaver, their dispute was so strong that it completely severed the former’s relationship with the Black Panthers. In his book Soul On Ice, Mulllen notes, Cleaver equated “…black male heterosexuality with healthy black nationalism, and queer black identity with betrayal of it…Cleaver argued…that the representation of queer relationships …was tantamount to race treason by Baldwin.”

Mullen sets out to examine Baldwin’s legacy through three major themes: sexuality, racial civil rights, and police brutality. It’s in this final theme that he introduces If Beale Street Could Talk, “…a somber, simmering, angry novel.” A young African-American couple (Fonny, 22, and Tish, 19) find themselves deep in love in early 1970s New York City. Tish becomes pregnant, and shortly after that, Fonny gets framed for rape. The tragedy of a doomed American penal system is as relevant and resonant now as it was then:

Here, Baldwin traffics in one of the oldest motifs in African-American literature, the unruly black rebel, as exemplified in the figure of John Henry the defiant railroad worker…Beale Street is any street in black America-from Harlem to East St. Louis-where black people might take refuge and pleasure from a world of pain.

Mullen ends with a discussion of Baldwin’s final decade, “…a world he both predicted and hoped never to see.” When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, Baldwin had warned people about the ease with which he’d prosecute his radical friends. While he was president, Reagan’s Press Secretary Larry Speakes would literally laugh off the AIDS crisis as early as 1982. Baldwin’s 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” would “…show Baldwin internalizing and manifesting new gender politics meant to challenge the hegenomy of white, male power structures.” Baldwin despised Reagan’s obliviousness about AIDS, but in his recollections of the man in the 1960’s he noted “…what I really found unspeakable about the man was his contempt, his brutal contempt, for the poor.”

In his postscript, Mullen notes that Baldwin’s December 1987 funeral/memorial was attended by more than 5,000 people, including most of his legendary fellow literary lions like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and William Styron. Missing from their tributes, Mullen notes, were discussions about Baldwin’s sexuality. “Baldwin remained at the time of his death a vaguely closeted figure.” It’s only been since 1999, with the publication of James Baldwin Now, an anthology examining queer themes and moments in Baldwin’s life and writing, “…that Baldwin has helped to queer African-American Studies and American literary history…neither will be the same again.” Bill Mullen’s James Baldwin: Living in Fire is an important addition to this ongoing assessment and examination of a writer whose legacy was strong during his lifetime and remains vital to this day.

Additional reading:

Barsanti, Chris. “Rage Plus Time Equals Prophecy: ‘I Am Not Your Negro'”. PopMatters. 7 December 2016

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau. 2015.

Kinnard, J.R. “Barry Jenkins’ ‘If Beal Street Could Talk‘ Is Unapologetically Romantic. PopMatters. 19 December 2018.

McBride, Dwight, ed. James Baldwin Now. NYU Press. 1999.

Reynolds, Mark. “James Baldwin Matters“. PopMatters. 15 January 2018