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Living in Fire
by Bill V Mullen
(Pluto Press, £20)
IN TRENTON, New Jersey, in 1942 the 18-year-old James Baldwin walked into a diner and ordered a hamburger and a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve Negroes here,” the waitress replied.
He left, calmly and without a fight, heading straight to an “enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant” where he “knew not even the intercession of the Virgin” would get him what he asked for.
He went inside, repeated his order, received an identical reply and, lifting a mug full of water from the nearest table, threw it at the waitress. She ducked and it smashed against the mirror behind the bar.
“I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp,” Baldwin would later say of that day. “One was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder.
“I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”
Living in Fire, Bill Mullen’s biography of Baldwin — the first in over 10 years — gives a context to understanding the activist and writer against the upheavals of the last decade. as well as his often overlooked radical political commitments.
Baldwin was an angry young man, with much to be angry about. Born in Harlem on August 2, 1924, to Emma Burdis Jones and a father he would never know, he grew up in Depression-era New York in the neighbourhood where unemployment in the 1930s reached 50 per cent.
His mother later married David Baldwin, a factory worker and son of slaves, and they proceeded to have eight more children together. Baldwin, with both parents out working, often looked after them “with one hand and held a book with the other.”
His stepfather left New Orleans in 1919 “to save his life,” Baldwin recalls. “They were hanging niggers from trees... and my father left the South therefore.” It was the “Red Summer” of 1919, when African-Americans in cities such as East St Louis and Chicago were brutally beaten, even killed, by soldiers returning from the first world war, whose jobs they had filled in their absence.
Baldwin Snr was a fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher and, from the age of 14 to 17, Baldwin himself was a young minister and spoke from the pulpit regularly. It was formative in two critical ways, by inspiring a love for the language and poetry of the King James Bible and honing his oratorical skills.
The ubiquity of Harlem’s churches also led Baldwin to sympathise with Marx’s famous observation that religion was “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.”
This dovetailed perfectly with Baldwin’s experiences of racial oppression: “Religion operates here as complete and exquisite fantasy revenge: white people own the earth and commit all manner of abomination and injustice on it; the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, for God is not sleeping, the judgement is not far off.”
But for Baldwin this wasn’t good enough. He wanted justice in the here and now.
It was around this time that he came into contact with young teacher Orilla Miller, who recognised Baldwin’s talents immediately. Miller, a member of the US Communist Party, moved to Harlem to work for the Federal Theater Project and she took Baldwin to see his first play, Orson Wells’s production of Macbeth. Set in Haiti with an all-black cast, it's considered a landmark of anti-racist US theatre.
This, along with the literature he was introduced to by Miller, including Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, lit Baldwin’s imagination and he began to write.
Baldwin’s sexual awakening soon followed his political one, with the loss of his faith and the realisation he was gay precipitating increasing tension with his father. At the age of 17 he moved to Greenwich Village, the New York bohemian quarter famous for its gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn.
There, Baldwin entered what he called “the most exploratory and economically tenuous period” of his life. He worked in precarious jobs such as meatpacking or waitering while working on his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It On the Mountain.
He became more politically engaged, joining the Young People’s Socialist League around the time of the Harlem riots in 1943, when a white policeman shot a black soldier in the back, igniting a furious response from a community either living in dire poverty at home or dying in huge numbers fighting a war half-way across the globe.
Baldwin persevered as a writer and activist over the next few years. But he was poor, black, gay and left-wing. Apart from his gender, it’s difficult to imagine a less advantageous position in the US at the dawn of the cold war, when it wasn’t just communism that McCarthy sought to eradicate from US life.
He left the US at the age of 24 and would never properly return. He went to Paris where, energised by the culture and radicalism of the Left Bank, he thrived. He wrote Giovanni’s Room, perhaps his most famous novel, as well as the essay collection Notes of a Native Son.
He became more successful throughout the 1960s and engaged in the political struggles of that tumultuous decade. These were anchored for him around the civil-rights movement, which he saw as allowing him to both identify with, and properly understand, international suffering.
“No black man in chains in his own country, and watching the many deaths occurring around him every day, believes for a moment that America cares anything at all about the freedom of Asia... every bombed village is my hometown,” he said of the Vietnam war.
And though he hoped the creation of Israel as a home for the dispossessed would prove a model for African-American emancipation, the colonial realities of that endeavour clearly angered him greatly: “The creation of the State of Israel was one of the most cynical achievements — really murderous, merciless, ugliest and cynical on the part of the Western nations,” he declared in 1970.
Though he found a strong political voice in Black Power, Baldwin’s sexuality caused tension within the emerging movement. He was referred to as Martin Luther Queen and Eldridge Cleaver, leader of the Black Panther Party, accused Baldwin “in his real life and fiction of giving himself up to political sodomy from the white man.”
In his prison memoir Soul on Ice, Cleaver would later write: “Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become the head of General Motors.”
Living at this intersection between masculinity, sexuality and race, Mullin claims, drove Baldwin to a new awareness of women’s oppression. He corresponded with many feminist writers and became great friends with the scholar and poet Nikki Giovanni, with whom he discussed and argued about the gender dynamics of Black Power.
The twin oppressions of racism and homophobia clearly vexed Baldwin greatly. He recalled that he made David, the gay protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, white rather than black because he “could not handle both propositions in the same book.”
But he was unequivocal about what he considered the greater burden: “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black.
“The sexual question comes after the question of color.”
Baldwin, it seems, considered the gay-rights movement a middle-class phenomenon, devoid of the radical commitments that would effect lasting change. As Mullin points out, this is curious, considering the role that queer and trans people of colour, such as Sylvia Rivera and Martha P Johnson, played in the Stonewall riots, which Baldwin never wrote about.
And though the Aids crisis would compel Baldwin as a public figure to speak out against the Reagan administration’s apathy, as well as nursing a partner who would die from it, the epidemic would barely feature in his writing at all.
Towards the end of his life Baldwin described himself, sadly, as an “ageing, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”
But he still seemed to enjoy visitors, jokes, laughter and discussion at his home in the south of France. “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity,” Baldwin told Giovanni one day. “Straight cats invented faggots so they can sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves.”
Giovanni responds that love is a “tremendous responsibility,” to which Baldwin simply replies: “It’s the only one to take, there isn’t any other.”
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