James Baldwin’s Harlem: The Key to His Politics

“In spite of all that has been done to us, we who have been described so often, are now describing.” – James Baldwin1

The publication of a paperback edition of Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin,2 by author and journalist Herb Boyd, whose recent credits include The Harlem Reader,3 brings a fresh interpretation of Baldwin’s life and work to the attention of Baldwin loyalists as well as to potentially larger audiences.

The existence of a number of full biographies of Baldwin deterred Boyd from writing another work in that genre. In an interview appended to Baldwin’s Harlem, Michael Thelwell, an ardent champion of Baldwin’s writing, encourages Boyd, despite his earlier misgivings, to write his own story of Baldwin – one that would trace Baldwin’s life and work from the perspective of the great metropolis of the African-American experience, Harlem (191).

From his birth on August 2, 1924, Baldwin lived with his family in a number of run-down apartments in poorly maintained buildings. The oldest of ten children, Baldwin explains, “As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other” (4). Around the corner from their wretched flat was the store-front church, where his stepfather (and later James himself) preached to a small congregation of self-anointed saints determined to fend off the magnetic force of “the streets,” where “sinners” cavorted. Unlike so many other members of the African-American intelligentsia, Baldwin neither arrived in Harlem from afar nor lived in Sugar Hill (or one of the other elegant enclaves) where Harlem’s various elites resided. His Harlem was not a re-imagined or rarified space; it meant a series of miserable flats situated in particularly gritty and narrowly circumscribed corners of “the Hollow,” an area crowded with Harlem’s most down-and-out denizens. This distinctly poorer area of Harlem was bounded by Lenox Avenue on the west, the Harlem River on the east, East 135th Street on the north, and East 130th Street on the south. When he reached nineteen, Baldwin left Harlem to live in Greenwich Village; thereafter, he returned to visit family and attend literary and political functions. However, in his writing he never left Harlem. As Boyd argues, Harlem infuses Baldwin’s literary work; it exits there like an unseen-yet-sensed character. In the words of another biographer, “the ghetto never had a more faithful son.”4 Though at times his thesis seems strained, Boyd’s Harlem-centric approach illuminates some contested areas of Baldwin’s life. Most consequentially, Baldwin’s Harlem, the Harlem of the poor, provides the key to Baldwin’s multi-racial, class-based politics.

Boyd supplies the best explanation for Baldwin’s deromanticization of Harlem. Baldwin first attracted literary attention with the February 1948 publication (in Commentary) of “The Harlem Ghetto,”5 which Boyd characterizes as a “relentless one-note theme of decay and despair.” For Baldwin, Harlem was a “ghetto,” where “the buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty; there are too many human beings per square mile…. All of Harlem is a place pervaded by a sense of congestion, rather like the insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding in the skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut” (39). During an interview with Julius Lester in 1984, Baldwin explained, “The Black middle class was an abstraction to me…. There were two Harlems. There was a great divide between the people who lived 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 wanted nothing to do with me” (28, 34). Early on and until his untimely death in 1987, Baldwin internalized the dyad of race and class.

Baldwin’s parents had arrived into this quintessentially urban setting from the rural South. His stepfather was menially employed at a distant job in a Long Island bottling plant. Their material poverty and ecstatic religion conditioned Baldwin’s sensibility and aesthetic. As first seen in his essentially autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin carried his viscerally felt experience into his art and into a political perspective which, while never omitting race, explicitly evinced a class perspective and internationalist consciousness. Convincingly, Baldwin’s Harlem sustains the assertion that in Baldwin’s essays and fictional writing he became, “the official transcriber of blues people engaged in daily combats against personal insults, political indignities, and physical violence” (ix). Despite Baldwin’s expatriate status, Boyd presents him, for the most part very convincingly, as having internalized Harlem into his very being.

Langston Hughes’ Harlem contrasted with Baldwin’s Harlem. “I had come to New York to enter Columbia College,” Hughes recalled in a 1963 essay. “But really why I had come to New York was to see Harlem. I was in love with Harlem long before I ever got there and I still am in love with it. Everyone seemed to make me welcome. I spent as much time in Harlem as I possibly could and I am still in love with it.”6 For Baldwin, Harlem was never a Mecca, a destination for Black (and more than a few progressive white) pilgrims to visit and be uplifted. Baldwin lived on the wrong side of the class divide within Harlem. Also he had missed the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin did gain one significant advantage from this incandescent period; his French teacher in Frederick Douglass Junior High School was Countee Cullen, one the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance (who also was gay). Surely Cullen’s couplet

Yet do I marvel at this curious thing;
To make a poet black, and bid him sing.

must have hummed in Baldwin’s head. Cullen also mentored Baldwin’s activity with the student newspaper and the school’s literary club. Baldwin’s encounter with Cullen marks the origins of his connection to France, a country where neither his sexuality nor his race constituted barriers to his full participation in society. Here Boyd’s narrative is stymied, because of Baldwin’s unwillingness to attribute influence to Cullen; a mean-spirited, solipsistic attitude Baldwin similarly visited upon his literary benefactors, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.7 Boyd (wisely) chose not to speculate on how Baldwin’s competitiveness, an endemic trait among writers, was reinforced by his negative relationship with his stepfather.

Boyd’s thematic biography shows that Baldwin’s passionate concern for the Black urban poor transmogrified into a perspective that literary historian Alan Wald has identified as typifying the approach of African-American cultural workers associated with the Communist Party through the 1950s, and which fully applies to Baldwin. Wald sees them as striving in their work to “balance commitments to national liberation and international class solidarity [to achieve] a symbiosis of anti-racism and the class struggle.”8 In a recent article, Bill Lyne views Baldwin’s politics as solidly based on the understanding that “authentic blackness” means to be Black and poor.9

Baldwin’s disavowal of an African-American all-class politics and his adoption of an outlook that fused race and class originated early. He remembers that at P.S. 24 “some teachers were definitely on the Left. They opposed Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich.” He further noted that several of these teachers were later “placed on the blacklists and drummed out of the academic community—to the everlasting shame of that community.”10 While attending the predominantly Jewish DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Baldwin joined a Communist youth group. Boyd reports that there is controversy about which one this was; unfortunately, he does not dig deeper. In No Name in the Street,11 Baldwin recounts that “At thirteen, I had been a convinced fellow traveler,” who marched in a May Day parade chanting “East Side, West Side all around the town, we want the landlords to tear the slums down.” As a teenager, he recalled adopting a “Trotskyite” identity and risking mortal injury for ridiculing the pro-Soviet wartime classic, Mission to Moscow, which humanized Joseph Stalin. Baldwin’s indignation – an emotion which is apt to reveal one’s most deeply held beliefs – was most strongly expressed against those “liberals” who did not protest “the execution of the Rosenbergs, the crucifixion of Alger Hiss, and the beatification of Whittaker Chambers,” all of which were fixations of Communists and their allies (29f).

Boyd devotes an entire chapter to Baldwin’s association with the campaign to exonerate “The Harlem Six,” six youths accused of murdering a Holocaust survivor during a robbery of a second-hand clothing shop on 125th Street on April 17, 1964. Boyd deserves credit for highlighting Baldwin’s activism on behalf of the defendants, a cause which most palpably brought him back to the Harlem of his youth. The extent of Baldwin’s involvement in that five-year long campaign is critical to Boyd’s hypothesis that “Harlem” organized Baldwin’s consciousness. Yet, he hangs the entire chapter on Baldwin’s brief essay, “A Report from an Occupied Country,” which he fails to note was published in The Nation.12

Had Boyd done some additional research on this grossly underreported campaign to free the Harlem Six, he would have discovered that Baldwin was a sponsor of the Charter Group for a Pledge of Conscience, a small, predominantly white group that for a ten-year period (1963-73) fulfilled its commitment, as encapsulated in its awkward name, to fight against racism in New York City.13 In addition to its work on behalf of The Harlem Six, the remarkably effective Charter Group played a major role in campaigns of great interest to the city’s minority populations including support for community control of the public schools and the fight for the humane treatment of prisoners in New York City’s prison system.14 At the very least, Baldwin’s association with the Charter Group evidences the compatibility of Baldwin’s politics with the multi-racial political culture that emerged from the Communist movement with which most of the Charter Group’s members had, at one time or other, been affiliated. Whatever details are lacking about Baldwin’s ties to the Charter Group, it is clear that throughout his life, Baldwin maintained a disdain for the Black bourgeoisie combined with a willingness to work politically with progressive whites. He consistently engaged in cross-racial movements to fight for racial equality and in causes such as defense of the Cuban Revolution and opposition to the Vietnam War.

In the penultimate chapter of Baldwin’s Harlem, “Cruse’s Crisis,” Boyd rises to the defense of Baldwin from the “relentless, craven assault inflicted on Baldwin and his consorts” (including Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, John Oliver Killens, and Dr. John Henrick Clarke) by Harold Cruse in his Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. While this chapter moves Baldwin’s Harlem away from its central focus, circuitously it exculpates Baldwin from the accusation of anti-Semitism. Cruse became most venomous when discussing Black-Jewish collaboration—political or cultural. His scurrilous characterization of Baldwin as an “innocent and provincial intellectual [who is not] a Jew-lover, inasmuch as Baldwin loves everybody” is breathtaking and reinforces the widespread opinion that this tome is “more divisive than instructive.”15 Whatever else Baldwin wrote about the Jewish people, the sentence of his that ultimately rings truest was his insistence that he knew a murderer when he saw one, “and the people who were trying to kill me were not Jews” (118).

Cruse corralled Baldwin and his illustrious fellows together in an intellectually shoddy effort to pillory them as race traitors. While acknowledging that more than any other African-American writer Baldwin had “approached the pinnacle of spokesmanship,” he insisted that his leadership was limited by his “lack of an ethnic-cultural philosophy.”16 Cruse got one thing right: Those he selected for this outrageous treatment had one thing in common. They all had some association with Freedomways, a quarterly published from 1961 to 1985, which maintained close ties to the Communist Party.17 Freedomways has been described as the brain child of Louis Burnham and Ed Strong, two African-American Communists who had been part of the leadership cadre of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC).18 Freedomways initiators included Lorraine Hansberry, who had worked on Freedom, a Harlem-based, Communist party-sponsored newspaper directed by Paul Robeson, which by 1955 had been red-baited out of existence.19 Freedomways’ editor, Esther Cooper Jackson, who also had been active in the SNYC, was the wife of James Jackson, a major Communist party leader and editor-in-chief of The Worker, the Communist Party’s newspaper.

Not only were Freedomways’ personnel and its organizational antecedents closely aligned with the Communist Party, so were its politics. Freedomways projected itself as a “political-cultural journal” that espoused a radical integrationist stance that demanded full equality for African-Americans and their recognition as a culturally distinct people.20 This complex theorem was joined to a pan-Africanist ethos which avowed that African-American solidarity with the struggles of people of color everywhere was a prerequisite to achieving the fullest degree of political, economic, and cultural independence. Freedomways’ subtitle, “A Quarterly Review of the Freedom Movement,” summed up its underlying political-cultural agenda. In his review of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, published in Freedomways, Ernest Kaiser, an editor of the journal, dismissed Cruse as simplifying and rigidifying the cultural and political tendencies in the African-American community into integrationists and separatists. He noted that throughout their history American Blacks simultaneously “struggled for integration and carried on various economic and cultural self-help activities….”21

Baldwin declared his affinity to Freedomways in the short-but-pithy Foreword he wrote for The Freedomways Reader: Afro-America in the Seventies, where he warmly praised the journal as “rather like a friend you have known so long that neither of you can remember exactly where, or when, you met. All is clear now that a friend came along when you needed one.” Baldwin credits Freedomways with “addressing itself to the task of re-interpreting the American reality: which … had global reverberations. No other black American periodical saw this as early, or as clearly, as Freedomways.”22 Over its 25-year lifespan, Freedomways published seven short pieces by Baldwin,23 but he also connected with that journal in more consequential ways. As a Contributing Editor, his name appeared on the inside cover page of each issue.24 The cover of Freedomways Reader featured a photo of Baldwin with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taken on February 23, 1968, on the occasion of a Freedomways-sponsored 100th birthday tribute to W.E.B Du Bois at Carnegie Hall. The photo shows a smiling King with his hand on Baldwin’s shoulder. The subtitle of the volume, “Prophets in Their Own Country,” is printed on top of Baldwin’s suit jacket, thereby leaving the impression that he and King are these prophets. In 1965, Baldwin spoke at a Freedomways-sponsored tribute to Paul Robeson held in New York City’s Hotel America, that attracted such wide support in the African-American community that it was characterized as “mirroring the black Popular Front of previous decades….”25

Cruse’s incessant bashing of Baldwin takes on a homophobic sense when he asserts that his voice is a “timorous” one (162).26 In support of Baldwin generally, and specifically against the notion that he was effete, Boyd’s appended interview with Michael Thelwell includes this glowing tribute: “Slender, gay James Baldwin taught a generation of us how to be black men in this country and he gave us a language in which to engage the struggle” (197).27 Throughout his all-too-brief biography, Boyd burnishes James Baldwin’s luster as a proud paladin of the African-American people and, by extension, of the American Left.

Notes

1. This epigram was Baldwin’s reply to the legendary Communist organizer Jack O’Dell’s query on the opening night of Blues for Mr. Charlie, as to his hopes for the play’s wider impact. Ian Rocksborough-Smith, “‘Filling the Gap’: Intergenerational Black Radicalism and the Popular Front Ideals of Freedomways Magazine’s Early Years (1961-1965),” Afro-Americans in New York Life and Historyvol. 31, no. 1, January 2007.

2. Herb Boyd, Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin (New York: Atria Books, 2008). Page-references in the text are to this volume.

3. Herb Boyd, A Harlem Reader: A Celebration of New York’s Most Famous Neighborhood (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003).

4. W.J. Weatherby, James Baldwin: Artist on Fire (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989), 4, 6.

5. Prior to this work, Baldwin had published eight slight pieces—six in the decidedly anti-Communist New Leader and two in the left-leaning The Nation. See the chronologically organized bibliography in David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 405-17.

6. Freedomways Reader: Prophets in Their Own Country, ed. Esther Cooper Jackson and Constance Pohl (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2000), 318.

7. Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 414f.

8. Alan Wald, “When Black Writers Were on the Left,” Socialism and Democracy vol. 17, no. 2 (2003), 245.

9. Bill Lyne, “God’s Black Revolutionary Mouth, James Baldwin,” Science & Society (Jan. 2010), 12f.

10. James Baldwin, “Dark Days,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (Des Moines: Library of America, nd), 661.

11. James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Dial, 1972).

12. James Baldwin, “A Report from an Occupied Country,” The Nation (July 11, 1966), 40.

13. Annette T. Rubinstein, The Not-So-Strange Case of the Harlem Six (New York: Congress of Racial Equality / Harlem CORE, Fall/Winter, 1967/1968), pamphlet deposited in the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Archives, New York University.

14. The Charter Group sponsored an anthology on the movement for community control of New York City’s public schools. Annette T. Rubinstein, ed. Schools Against Children (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).

15. Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: Its Origins to the Present (New York: William Morrow, 1967), 482.

16. Cruse, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, 597.

17. In one full chapter and elsewhere throughout Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Cruse castigates Freedomways’ staff and contributors as “integrationists” and dismisses its articles as “all so frighteningly superficial, routine, and unoriginal” (240-49).

18. The Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was founded on the initiative of the Communist Party in 1937, worked to organize tobacco workers, support legislation to stop lynching, and help African Americans in the South register to vote. Headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, at its height it boasted eleven thousand members. The SNYC folded in 1949 as yet one more casualty to the rising political repression of that time. Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 181-228.

19. Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988), 437.

20. Freedomways was a direct descendent of Freedom, a Harlem-based weekly edited by Paul Robeson that published form 1951 to 1955. It also filled the gap left by the demise in 1963 of the Communist Party’s cultural monthly Mainstream (previously named Masses and Mainstream). By 1968, Freedomways circulation reached 7,000. Freedomways special issues and two volumes that reprinted selected works reached much larger audiences. The Winter 1965 issue devoted to W.E.B. Du Bois sold 15,000 copies and was later reprinted. Rocksborough-Smith, “… Intergenerational Black Radicalism” (note 1).

21. Ernest Kaiser, “A Review of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” in A Freedomways Reader: Afro-America in the Seventies, ed. Ernest Kaiser (New York: International Publishers, 1977), 285. In the conclusion of his review, Kaiser dismissed Cruse’s either-or approach as, “always analyzing the Negro program in a vacuum, never as programs, demands, or developments that grow out of the Negro people’s struggles.”

22. James Baldwin, Foreword to Kaiser, A Freedomways Reader, n.p.

23. Baldwin’s published pieces in Freedomways include: “A Conversation with James Baldwin: Interview with Kenneth Clark” (Summer 1963); “A Talk to Harlem Teachers” (Summer 1963); “What Price Freedom?” (Spring 1964); “Anti-Semitism and Black Power” (Winter 1967); “The War Crimes Tribunal” (Summer 1967); “A Letter to Americans” (Spring 1968); “Lorraine Hansberry at the Summit” (Winter 1971).

24. Other contributing editors included Ruby Dee and Alice Walker.

25. Rocksborough-Smith, “…Intergenerational Black Radicalism.” In 1964, Freedomways sponsored the opening of Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr. Charlie.

26. Boyd also reminds his readers that feminist critics have documented the misogynist cast of Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which is devoid of women except for Hansberry who is amply vilified (165).

27. Countering the most scurrilous homophobic attacks on Baldwin, such as those of Eldridge Cleaver, we have the unforgettable suggestion of Huey Newton, who on August 15, 1970, averred, “Through reading and through my life experience and observation [I’ve come to the realization that] homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in this society…. [Homosexuals] might be the most oppressed people in our society…. Maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.” Huey Newton, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements.” www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/newtonq.html

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