Waiting for the fire

Issue 

James Baldwin: A Biography
By David Leeming
Henry

Holt & Co, 1995. 442 pp., $26.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Australian censors, in their own perverse way, have guided many

Australians to good, challenging writers. James Baldwin, US

essayist, novelist and playwright, was high on their list in the

'50s and '60s.

Baldwin was a black homosexual who wrote some of the most angry

yet sensitive works on the crippling effects of racism and

homophobia on victims and perpetrators alike, who saw value in

social and sexual relationships between black and white, and who

was watched by the FBI for his growing black militancy. No wonder

our political and moral guardians banned his books. Fortunately,

the movement that Baldwin was part of has broken the censors'

shackles.

The biography of Baldwin, who died in 1987, by David Leeming

takes us into the bruised, traumatic but triumphant personal

world of Baldwin. Born in 1924 in New York's Harlem, Baldwin

became a preacher at age 14 but soon left the church to take up

writing as his life's work.

He left for Paris in 1948 after one too many "we don't serve

Negroes here" in one too many restaurants. In 1956, the

growing civil rights struggle in the US South drew him back. The

bombing of integrationist schools, murders of blacks and rampant

discrimination appalled Baldwin.

He threw in his lot with Martin Luther King, although Baldwin

became dissatisfied with King's non-violence and Christian

bourgeois values. The black pride of the Nation of Islam

attracted him, but he was more in tune with one of that

movement's one-time sons — Malcolm X — and he liked the

defiance, if not the Marxist politics, of George Jackson and

Angela Davis.

In the end, however, Baldwin occupied his own individual

political and writer's space in the black civil rights movement.

He rejected separatism, always seeing in even the most disgusting

racist a "complex and redeemable humanity". Eldridge

Cleaver overreacted, attacking Baldwin for his "shameful,

fanatical, fawning, sycophantic, love of the whites".

Baldwin warned against the gun as a strategy for liberation,

arguing that love was the only antidote to hatred and bigotry.

This drew the ire of some young black militants in the Black

Panthers who saw him as passe and an "Uncle Tom".

Baldwin's real limitation, however, was his rejection of

politics. Although briefly a member of a Trotskyist group in

Greenwich Village in 1943, Baldwin was suspicious of all

"ideologies", preferring to write on the African American

condition from the "human" rather than the

"political" perspective, divorcing two perspectives that

should be complementary.

Baldwin despaired at the apparent inability of white US workers

to fight even for themselves, let alone for black rights. His one

foray into union issues was to protest the Longshoremen's

(wharfies) union's complicity in discriminatory, anti-black

hiring practices. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote,

"Consider the history of labour in a country in which,

spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for

the hand of the boss's daughter". This pessimism blunted the

edge of Baldwin's anti-racist activism and writing.

Nevertheless, his books deserved the enthusiastic reception they

received in the dark days of southern vigilantes and northern

liberal faint-hearts in the racist United States. Although most

of his work (like Leeming's biography) hangs politically

directionless in the rhetorical stratosphere of his

"human" perspective, James Baldwin's works gave, and

still give, an unsurpassed personal voice to the social and

political struggles of black people the world

over.