James Baldwin Revisited

by Ralph Dumain


I read much of James Baldwin during the 1970s, but my direct engagement with him pretty much ended with my reading of his powerful last novel Just Above My Head (1979) circa 1980, though it continued to resonate for some years afterwards. This is partly because I was impressed with the capacity of the novel form to reveal the nuances of the individual in relation to environment that no philosophy or cultural theory known in my neck of the woods in the 1970s could capture. Somehow I missed out on Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and sometime within the past couple years I put it on my mental reading list. One reason is that I knew this novel dealt with Baldwin's childhood religious milieu, from which he retained a lifelong psychological framework though he himself progressed to a secular humanist viewpoint, and I wanted to see how Baldwin handled this subject given a commonplace notion of him as a religious person. The week before last I had just finished Rousseau's Dog, a biographical account of the relation between the philosophers Hume and Rousseau, and I needed to grab another book, but not a thick one, to carry around town with me. I suspect that personal memories and preoccupations looming in my mind in anticipation of a dreaded anniversary coinciding with Mother's Day germinated in my mind a disposition to contemplate once again the historical progress of black consciousness across generations. On a whim I grabbed Go Tell It on the Mountain off the shelf, put it in my carrying bag and read it over the next couple of days. But from what framework would I read it now, as compared to my perspective of 1980, and how do both compare to the mental universe of a man who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, not to mention under drastically different social circumstances in all respects?

From my late my teenage years through my early-mid 20s, I read many accounts of the gruesome conditions of the South and the nation's black urban ghettos, which, I'm guessing now, described prevailing conditions from the 1920s or so through the 1950s and part-way through the '60s. But though society was changing while I was reading these old stories, they didn't seem out of date. Of course, the social universe of the baby boomers (in all communities, I venture to claim) was worlds apart from that of the Depression generation, but that perceived discontinuity shrinks in light of the historical discontinuity that separates the cultural universe of the 1970s from that of the 1980s and beyond.

How did I react when I read this grim material? As it was no doubt intended to do, among other things, it aroused my indignation. I remember little of the particulars, but I can still recall shaking with rage as I read Richard Wright's autobiographical account (published under the title Black Boy in 1995, restored to its original title and text as American Hunger in the 1990s). In many ways, this sort of material was heavy duty. But I was young and innocent, and I could only react naively to new information. One has to be distanced from the assumptions of one's own earlier self in order to fully evaluate one's own experience and one's evaluation of the experiences of others. Except for my engagement with Ralph Ellison in the mid-1980s and after and Richard Wright in the 1990s, I had pretty much left my reading of Baldwin and comparable writers behind, though Baldwin still surfaced in my intellectual environment from time to time. But the quarter century separating then and now encompasses not only a period of personal change, but an epochal change.

In the 1970s I read at least two of Baldwin's key books of essays, presumably Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time at least. I probably encountered Baldwin's play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964) at some point. I recall reading three of Baldwin's novels. It looks like I missed out on Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) though I was vividly aware of the title. Another Country (1962) was intense and full of urban pathos, but I am sure I was too naive to evaluate it in any non-obvious way and I remember nothing of it now except for some nebulous impressions of two interracial couples. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) was an inferior piece of work and I feel no need to revisit it. I was blown away by Just Above My Head. It had some imperfections—excessive editorializing—but its depiction of the inner world of its characters got to me. I am quite sure if I re-read the two novels that impressed me, I would see them very differently now.


A number of harsh judgments have been leveled against Baldwin: he was emotional rather than politically astute, too preachy, narcissistic, out of touch, his novels and essays were riddled with flaws . . . It is said that he was not able to juggle the roles of artist and political propagandist, that his art suffered from politics and his politics suffered from his sensibility. He either caved into the black power mode or was insufficiently in step with it. While there is some truth in some of these accusations, the whys are not adequately accounted for. I see two major factors, not of equal obviousness.

Generations—there is a threshold in the formation of one's mental universe and the assimiliation of outside influences at which one's orientation to the world gels. This sense of reality is the basis from which new social and cultural changes are evaluated. Anyone who came of age in the 1950s, '60s, or thereafter has to have a different filter from someone whose character was formed in the 1920 and '30s.

Both individual and collective experience can only be truly evaluated retrospectively, after social and individual assumptions operative at a point in time have changed, and experience can be re-revaluated from a changed framework. In other words, one gets distance from an earlier time and from an earlier self.

The less obvious truth is that one's assimilation even of one's own insights is affected by the quality of feedback one gets. The better one is understood, the more real one's ideas are even to oneself, and hence more susceptible to refinement.

Even famous people with a multitude of acquaintances at an above-average intellectual level may still be starved for just the feedback they need with deep enough insight to stimulate their further growth. Such feedback is rarer than you think.


If James Baldwin was out of touch from the 1970's to the time of his death, just what was he out of touch with?

Just a very rough timetable: Baldwin's childhood spanned the 1920s-30s; his first novel was published at age 29; the Supreme Court desegregation decision came a year later; the March on Washington transpired at age 39, King's assassination at age 44, the election of Ronald Reagan at age 56, death at age 63. Now what should Baldwin have learned at each benchmark of social development? The crucial question is: once the blast of the '60s cooled down and the '70s settled in, what should someone of Baldwin's age have concluded?

A certain pessimism set in in the 1970s among the various segements of the population, for different reasons. The revolutionary developments of the '60s changed American society forever, at the expense of the repression of revolutionary forces. The cultural revolution more or less won, but the political revolution lost. The economic and political order regressed, even as a select percentage of previously excluded groups made inroads into mainstream society as never before. The conditions of the black working class did not improve but worsened, far beyond the havoc wreaked on the white working class by stagflation, deindustrialization, and unemployment, even as a new black middle class expanded in mainstream society.

But no mass reassessment of American history surfaced until the mini-series Roots was broadcast in 1977. The conflicts of the '70s aside, most conspicuously over busing as a means to school desegregation, white America's view of history and society was not significantly challenged before Roots, and it's not clear how much good this did. There was plenty of reason for pessimism in the era of Jimmy Carter's malaise. Reagan's counter-revolution certainly must have sealed the deal. 1980 marked a sea-change, not only a political but a cultural and generational shift, with paradoxical effect.

Only in the 1980s did a wide-ranging intellectual sophistication emerge, effected by the baby-boomers who had penetrated academia in the '70s, and then with the contributions of younger intellectuals. Only then did the conceptual tools emerge by which one might effectively evaluate James Baldwin at last. But then, by his own admission, he was a ghost. The world he had known was now gone.

Historical research and cultural analysis exploded in Baldwin's final years and after his death. Baldwin's unreconciled contradictions can only be evaluated in this present period. The paradox is that it's much harder, for those who don't remember, to grasp how naive, unenlightened, and repressive the social environment was prior to the '70s, and how impossible it would have been to see things as we see them now. There is a break dividing the cultural topography of that world from our world today.


In an unenlightened age, James Baldwin saw farther than most of us. Now we can effortlessly pigeonhole Baldwin in the accepted categories of black and gay literature, but Baldwin cut through virgin forestation in a bygone epoch before such territory was on the map. Given the oppressive conditions of his formative years, what might he have learned in the last decade of his life that reflected the concurrent changes in American society? How does Baldwin hold up against those who judge him?

Final recap, on the relation between individual and collective. Was Baldwin too close to his people, or too distant? Too political, or too apolitical? Did Baldwin finally overindulge in pompous editorializing, sloganeering, prophesying, too preoccupied with redemption to think with political and sociological precision? Baldwin stated that he needed to remove himself from America to truly understand his Americanness. This perspective was gained in the 1950s. In the militant '60s the negotiation between individual and artistic perspective, and political and cultural loyalties, was particularly uncomfortable. The contrary pulls of the perspective of collective black cultural and social experience and an individual cum universalistic perspective are well-known, and perhaps better understood now. Any failure to synthesize these two perspectives is not an individual failure, but a social failure. In addition, it marks the historical bounds of a generational experience.

James Baldwin Revisited (2): Go Tell It on the Mountain

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JAMES BALDWIN (1924 - 1987)
A selective bibliography of open access articles on James Baldwin

More on James Baldwin
From the Archives of The New York Times

James Baldwin: An Appreciation by John Stevenson
BBR December 1995

Trapped Inside James Baldwin
Everything he had to say was some version of the problem of being himself.
New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1998

"Who now reads James Baldwin?" by Terry Teachout
National Review, Feb 9, 1998
Right-wing hatchet job

"Come-to-Jesus Stuff" in James Baldwin's 'Go tell It on the Mountain' and 'The Amen Corner.' - a novel and a play
by Barbara K. Olson
African American Review, Summer, 1997

Free Inquiry, Fall 2000

The Infidels - James Baldwin

New Essays on Go Tell It on the Mountain edited by Trudier Harris (Cambridge Univ. Press description)

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Uploaded 22 May 2007

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