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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 207

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This is the grave of James Baldwin.

Baldwin was born in 1924 and was raised by his mother and an awful stepfather. Avoiding his enormous, poor, and abusive family, Baldwin spent as much time in libraries as he could and of course, he was a genius so he picked up everything he could. He started writing as a teenager and edited his high school newspaper in The Bronx with his classmate, the photographer Richard Avedon. He hated school because of the constant racism he faced from most of his white classmates. He rejected religion from a young age and hung out in Greenwich Village as much as he could, where he became roommates with Marlon Brando for a couple years. Disgusted with racism and unwilling to live with it, he moved to France in 1948. There he felt he could be both black and gay without feeling constant prejudice and pressure. He would spend most of the rest of his life in France, even as he became one of the most insightful and brilliant commenters on American culture and politics who ever lived.

Baldwin began getting essays published in major American magazines such as The Nation in 1947. But the real splash came with his amazing novels and long-form essays. Go Tell It on the Mountain, one of the great debut novels of American literature, was published in 1953. His first essay collection, Notes from a Native Son, came out in 1955. And in 1956 came Giovanni’s Room. I think of all Baldwin’s work, this is my favorite. Not only is it a great book but it’s such a brave novel for that time, a wonderful work by a now popular writer on being in a gay relationship. This is just unheard of for that time. And I think that him writing that is essentially impossible if he was living in the United States. The Fire Next Time was perhaps his most influential piece of writing, with the first half dedicated to advice to his young nephew about the history of race in America. Published in 1963, this searing critique of the nation during the peak of the civil rights movement made Baldwin even more famous. He toured the South giving talks about the nation’s racist history and culture, landing him on the cover of Time that summer. Probably his last major work was 1972’s No Name in the Street, another fiery portrait of American racism in the aftermath of so many assassinations of civil rights leaders. I haven’t read his later works, many of which focused on black families, his own sexuality, and then a last novel based on the Atlanta child murders of the 80s.

Baldwin didn’t come to the U.S. too much in his later years, but in the late 50s and 60s, he returned from France frequently. He was not really an activist per se. Some people aren’t front lines people. Instead, he saw himself as a sympathetic observer and chronicler of what his brave comrades were facing and accomplishing. Given his tremendous writing skills, that was more valuable than anything he could have done at a march or in an organizing meeting. He joined CORE and gave lots of speeches, both north and south. A completely independent voice, Baldwin talked openly about socialism, his admiration for both King and Malcolm, his dislike of religion, or whatever he wanted. He also used his power when he could, writing a letter to Robert Kennedy during the Birmingham suppression, blaming J. Edgar Hoover and JFK for the violence, which led to a meeting between Baldwin and Kennedy and another that he curated between RFK and many civil rights activists in Baldwin’s New York apartment.

I have not yet seen I Am Not Your Negro, the recent documentary on Baldwin, a situation I obviously need to alleviate. Baldwin never shied away from a chance to make his point, leading to many interviews, including his famous debate with vile racist William F. Buckley. Let’s watch some of them.

Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987. He deserved a less painful and horrible end. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. His mother outlived him and is buried next to him.

If you are interested in seeing this series profile other great American writers and social commenters, you can support the travel required here. Previous entries in this series are archived here.

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