Over the course of the 1960s, the FBI amassed almost two thousand documents in an investigation into one of America’s most celebrated minds. The subject of this inquiry was a writer named James Baldwin.
At the time, the FBI investigated many artists and thinkers, but most of their files were a fraction the size of Baldwin’s. During the years when the FBI hounded him, he became one of the best-selling black authors in the world.
So what made James Baldwin loom so large in the imaginations of both the public and the authorities? Born in Harlem in 1924, he was the oldest of nine children. At age fourteen, he began to work as a preacher. By delivering sermons, he developed his voice as a writer, but also grew conflicted about the Church’s stance on racial inequality and homosexuality.
After high school, he began writing novels and essays while taking a series of odd jobs. But the issues that had driven him away from the Church were still inescapable in his daily life. Constantly confronted with racism and homophobia, he was angry and disillusioned, and yearned for a less restricted life.
So in 1948, at the age of 24, he moved to Paris on a writing fellowship. From France, he published his first novel, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” in 1953. Set in Harlem, the book explores the Church as a source of both repression and hope. It was popular with both black and white readers. As he earned acclaim for his fiction, Baldwin gathered his thoughts on race, class, culture and exile in his 1955 extended essay, “Notes of a Native Son.”
Meanwhile, the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in America. Black Americans were making incremental gains at registering to vote and voting, but were still denied basic dignities in schools, on buses, in the work force, and in the armed services.
Though he lived primarily in France for the rest of his life, Baldwin was deeply invested in the movement, and keenly aware of his country’s unfulfilled promise. He had seen family, friends, and neighbors spiral into addiction, incarceration and suicide.
He believed their fates originated from the constraints of a segregated society. In 1963, he published “The Fire Next Time,” an arresting portrait of racial strife in which he held white America accountable, but he also went further, arguing that racism hurt white people too.
In his view, everyone was inextricably enmeshed in the same social fabric. He had long believed that: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Baldwin’s role in the Civil Rights movement went beyond observing and reporting.
He also traveled through the American South attending rallies giving lectures of his own. He debated both white politicians and black activists, including Malcolm X, and served as a liaison between black activists and intellectuals and white establishment leaders like Robert Kennedy.
Because of Baldwin’s unique ability to articulate the causes of social turbulence in a way that white audiences were willing to hear, Kennedy and others tended to see him as an ambassador for black Americans — a label Baldwin rejected.
And at the same time, his faculty with words led the FBI to view him as a threat. Even within the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin could sometimes feel like an outsider for his choice to live abroad, as well as his sexuality, which he explored openly in his writing at a time when homophobia ran rampant.
Throughout his life, Baldwin considered it his role to bear witness. Unlike many of his peers, he lived to see some of the victories of the Civil Rights movement, but the continuing racial inequalities in the United States weighed heavily on him.
Though he may have felt trapped in his moment in history, his words have made generations of people feel known, while guiding them toward a more nuanced understanding of society’s most complex issues.
What do you think “Notes of a native son: the world according to James Baldwin by Christina Greer“? Don’t forget to rate it and share it with your friends.
Credit: Christina Greer – TED ed