James Baldwin's Birthday: Quotes and Facts to Remember the Black Writer White Liberals Liked to Fear

Members of the Black Lives Matter group try to interrupt U.S. President Donald Trump’s address to the crowd during a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, March 20. Said writer James Baldwin, “I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with.” Reuters

Newsweek published this story under the headline "The Dilemma of a Native Son" on December 14, 1987. In honor of what would have been James Baldwin's 93rd birthday, Newsweek is republishing the story.

"I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me." —Notes of a Native Son

Always he felt himself an exile: because he was black and ambivalent about his religion and his sexuality. Last week James Baldwin, 63, died of stomach cancer at his home in Saint-Paul de Vence in southern France. For three decades he had served as our Jeremiah, raging against the abomination of American racism. He wrote novels, plays, stories and above all essays that combined polemic with autobiography. The last were not easily arrived at: A polemic requires a certain public distance, yet Baldwin's autobiographies were intensely personal. He yoked these two seemingly incompatible forms together, as no one in recent memory had, and the combination worked so well that for a time Baldwin seemed a more important writer than history will probably judge him to have been.

His strongest books appeared between 1953, when his first and only really good novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, appeared, and 1963, when he published his classic warning to white America, The Fire Next Time. In between came, among other books, two collections of essays—Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name—which deserve to be read as long as anyone cares for the essay form, or even for good prose.

Baldwin was always an angry writer, yet his intelligence was so provoking and his sentences so elegant that he quickly became the black writer that white liberals liked to fear. "White man, hear me!" he thundered, and educated white folk attended. Baldwin gave them no comfort at all. Calling himself a "public witness to the situation of black people," he explained that all American institutions including the church are inherently racist and meant "to keep the nigger in his place." The American system of governance, he said, is designed to destroy American blacks, and the whites have never understood the monstrosity of their situation: Their "innocence" is testimony to their guilt. "I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be 'accepted' by white people," he wrote in 1962, "still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed."

The New Yorker, where The Fire Next Time first appeared, may not be everyone's idea of a radical magazine, but it knows good writing; in those days and in those pages Baldwin was as an accomplished rhetorician as Martin Luther King Jr. was in a public arena. Both men's eloquence derived from the rhythms of evangelical preaching. Baldwin reinforced the generalities of his arguments with precise imagery.

For Baldwin, advocacy was a matter of changing pulpits. Born illegitimate in Harlem in 1924, he was, he says, an avid reader and "an ugly boy." He endured the repression of his stepfather, a failed preacher. Possessed of a fine speaking voice, he became, as a boy, a preacher himself, and later, at 19, a Trotskyite. Two black newspapers laughed at his writing pretensions—"I was a shoeshine boy who had never been to college...I still remember how deeply I was hurt"—but The Nation and The New Leader let Baldwin write book reviews for $10 and $20. Later his work was embraced by Commentary and Partisan Review; his success was then assured. At 24, discouraged by racism at home, he left for Paris, but he was too intelligent to accept an unexamined exile. For a time he doubted the worth of fleeing "the native fantasy only to embrace a foreign one."

Black writers have been more critical than whites of Baldwin's work. Richard Wright, who himself died in France at 52, accused Baldwin of betraying him and all American blacks with an essay criticizing protest literature. In the late '60s and early '70s, as the civil-rights movements yielded to black militancy, younger writers, like Eldridge Cleaver, taunted Baldwin for selling out to whitey. Baldwin wavered visibly on the printed page. By 1972, when he published another autobiographical book, No Name in the Street, many critics thought his argument had coarsened and his language had deteriorated. Where once he had written, "It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own," he now wrote, "I have no compassion whatever for this country or my countrymen."

Harassing fire: Here was his dilemma: On the one hand, Baldwin was a success, as much of a celebrity as writers ever get to be, yet on the other, he could never escape the snap of harassing fire. A sensitive man, he could never entirely disagree with his critics. With success, his famous noble rage had become a kind of truculent belligerence— it's difficult to sustain an apocalyptic style from the back seat of a chauffeured limousine. With the spark now fitfully flickering, his assaults on white Americans came to look like reflexive gestures, easily and constantly repeated from a lecture platform, an interview or an op-ed article.

Many, perhaps most, writers deliver their best books at the beginning, and Baldwin can't be blamed for feeling ill at ease as the black protest changed its tone; he was, after all, a professional exile. The thing to remember is that he was once a very good writer—and good writers are entitled to be remembered by their best work.