James Baldwin’s Harlem

This week in Memoir class, we’re reading some James Baldwin, among others. I’m re-blogging a book review/essay which appeared in the early months of this blog.
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James Baldwin was born in Harlem, a simple fact, but one with far from simple impact on his character, destiny, and art. Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem Hospital His mother was Emma Berdis Jones, part of the African American migration from the south and away from segregation laws and the threat of the Klan. Baldwin never knew who his father was, and was raised by an often abusive step-father, David Baldwin. Harlem, with all of its conflicts, ambiguities, and social levels gave birth not to just James Baldwin the man but to Baldwin the writer. Even though he left as a young adult, never to permanently return, Baldwin’s formative experiences were those he would mine forever as a writer.
Herb Boyd’s biography of James Baldwin, Baldwin’s Harlem, makes this influence clear in all its details. Published by Atria Books, the biography chronicles Baldwin’s early years on hard streets made harder by the Depression. But Harlem also had tremendous cultural vibrancy. Although the literary movement dubbed the Harlem Renaissance had waned, important figures from it such as Langston Hughes still remained. Countee Cullen, a poet from the Harlem Renaissance, was actually Baldwin’s teacher in junior high school. Theater, music, and politics still filled the air. And Baldwin observed, looking back from 1980: “The poverty of my childhood differed from the poverty of today in that the TV set was not sitting in front of our faces, forcing us to make unbearable comparisons between the room we were sitting in and the rooms we were watching, neither were we endlessly being told what to wear and drink and buy. We knew that we were poor, but then, everybody around us was poor.”
If the threat of the south was the Klu Klux Klan, then police brutality presented a similar threat in Harlem. And class distinctions also flourished. While Langston Hughes, who had moved to Harlem, praised it Baldwin felt a resentment against the black middle class, and there was often tension between West Indian immigrants and the native born. In terms of class, Baldwin observed “There were two Harlems. Those who lived in Sugar Hill (the famous black middle class neighborhood) and there was the Hollow, where we lived. There was a great divide between the black people on the hill and us. I was just a ragged, funny black shoeshine boy and I was afraid of the people on the Hill, who, for their part, didn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
A commitment to his family and younger siblings kept Baldwin from totally leaving Harlem, but he moved to Greenwich Village as soon as he could as a young man, propelled by a need to get away–both as a writer and as a homosexual. Indeed, Baldwin soon became a permanent ex-patriot, first leaving for Europe in 1948. And while he was frequently ambivalent about Harlem, in particular condemning its ugliness and housing projects, the true love urban of his life was Paris, which he always characterized in glowing terms.Yet he never lost touch with American political movements, supporting the fight for Civil Rights, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers.
Baldwin of course is best known as a writer, the author of Go Tell It On The Mountain and If Beale Street Could Talk. However, the portrait of Baldwin that emerges in Boyd’s biography is a highly complex one, not just that of a prominent black writer in America bent on expressing personal and political experience. Indeed, Baldwin’s relationship with other black writers began, and remained, highly conflictual. He attacked pioneering–and famous–novelist Richard Wright by comparing him to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and calling them both propagandists. He feuded with Langston Hughes, and never credited Countee Cullen with much influence. In a way, Baldwin as a writer exemplified what critic Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”–a desire to be seen on his own and as a self-made artist.
Although conflict characterizes Baldwin as both man and writer, that conflict was also a source of creativity. Ralph Ellison, the revered author of Invisible Man roundly criticized Baldwin for his political involvement, saying “This is a great mistake you’re making, getting involved in the civil rights movement. The artist must maintain a certain esthetic distance.” But this was not James Baldwin, and his art did not suffer, and certainly nor did his conscience. Also, Baldwin knew when to be true to himself. His novel, Giovanni’s Room, is about a tragic gay love affair, and has no major black characters in it. Rather than being his ruination, as predicted, the novel is considered by many to be among his finest works.
Boyd is at his best at the center of his subject, what he calls “Harlem, Real and Imagined.” He writes: “To a great degree, Harlem tended to be just another character for Baldwin, he treated it with the same brush of contradiction he used on his other subjects. For the most part, though, Harlem was typecast as the lowlife harlot, consistently present in his non-fiction and only occasionally beautified in his fiction.”
In his introduction to the book, Boyd writes: “The Baldwin I have discovered through interviews, with friends and relatives, and his essays and novels is as complex and indefinable as I expected.” In the final analysis, it is not only Harlem which is a place of contradiction, it is Baldwin himself. And Harlem remains both a prison Baldwin escaped and a muse he always carried within him.

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