James Baldwin: A Biography
By David Leeming
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'
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
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