Sometimes you just have to “strike when the iron’s hot!”
You see, the heightened interest nowadays in the Tulsa race massacre of a century ago and the origins of the Juneteenth celebration are “strike” opportunities for filling in the missing gaps in African-American — no, strike that — American history, to do more reading, to do more appreciating. So, let us fill in one such gap with James Baldwin, author, activist and visionary.
Suddenly an old book, “James Baldwin, artist on fire,” fell out of a box while I was cleaning out the garage recently. It had been sitting in a corner collecting dust obviously for a long time. In truth, I had no idea I had the book and haven’t the foggiest idea how it ended up in my possession in the first place.
Now the piercing eyes on the yellowing cover of the book are those of a Marlboro puffing Baldwin, author of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Nobody knows my name” and “Giovanni’s Room,” all novels that garnered international fame — and infamy in some quarters — in the last century. Written by W. J. Weatherby, the book is essentially 400 pages of biography chronicling the incredible and often turbulent life of Baldwin.
I couldn’t put this one down folks. It is just that riveting.
So rather than tell you to go out and find the book, I thought it easier to take excerpts from the flap in the front and back of it to create a sense of who Baldwin was and the enormous impact he had on history, literature and the Civil Rights movement and to flesh that out with comments of my own as I plowed through its pages.
The story begins with 5,000 mourners at his funeral in 1987 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the edge of his native Harlem. It moves to Baldwin’s years growing up in Harlem, his days as young preacher, then explores his relationships — some life long, others antagonistic — with his stepfather, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, William F. Buckley Jr., and others.
A diminutive man, “Jimmy” (as he was affectionately called by family and friends) struggled with his relationship with his stepfather yet was sustained by a loving mother and brothers and sisters. His early life experience with racial strife led to his decision to leave American where he was drawn to Paris to join others, many of them writers like himself, musicians, and others who sought to escape the pressures of race in the United States. There he struggled to make ends meet by job-hopping, constantly moving and borrowing money from those he knew. As the book unfolds, Baldwin would make many trips to Paris only to return to Harlem and its harsh realities.
Baldwin’s ambivalent experiences with Africans while in Paris caused him to be indecisive when pressed by The New Yorker to visit “the mother country” and write an article on his observations. “My bones know that somehow something awaits for me in Africa,” he said. “That is one of the reasons I dawdled so long — I’m afraid.” He eventually joined his sister Gloria, who married an African and traveled down the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Ghana. On return he said, “I have so much to learn. I want to go back and back again.”
The biography deals candidly with Baldwin’s homosexuality (“Giovanni’s Room”), his constant drinking and sometimes violent lifestyle. Although outrage at injustice and racism seep through much of the book, his sharp wit, humor and financial generosity to family and friends offer a softer look at Jimmy Baldwin.
Now what struck me more than anything about the book were his acrimonious relationships with some of the best writers of the day, namely Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, especially Norman Mailer and the tremendous influence fellow writers like Henry James and William Faulkner had on him.
The book paints a masterful picture of Baldwin’s life in Greenwich Village where he weaved through the wee hours of the night in restaurants, gay bars, jazz clubs, usually with a small entourage. To get away from it all, Baldwin was an invited guest in cottages in Sweden, Turkey or Provincetown where he could write without distraction.
Deeply curious about the South, Baldwin made many trips to Alabama and Mississippi where he befriended the Dr. King, James Meredith and Medgar Evers. His outrage at the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi led to his controversial “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” that opened as a play on Broadway in 1964. He chafed under harsh criticism from his literary peers and had no problem firing back with sharp-tongued essays that often incurred the wrath of many of the old guard. He sought to find his place somewhere between the militancy of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and the non-violent philosophy of Dr. King, and quickly became a favorite among students at colleges across the nation.
As his fame and influence grew, Hollywood-style adulation of that fame started to take its toll as evidenced by his retreats to Paris, the back streets of Greenwich Village or to guest houses of some of his well-to-do friends, leaving family and friends worried about his whereabouts and well-being.
In “Artist on Fire,” one has the feel of being in the room with Baldwin, sitting next to him at DeWitt Clinton High School, laying railroad tile with him New Jersey, or sitting in a small cottage facing the ocean with him drinking scotch, debating the issues of the day with his expressive hands and ageless gap-toothed grin.
James Baldwin was a man of compassion and uncompromising honesty. And yet a man forever consumed by the trappings of his past, and gnawed by issues of race in the U.S.
This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary American.