This essay reads James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, through the lenses of European existentialism and Black existential thought to arrive at a new understanding of the novel itself as well as essential stages of its development. Archival sources and close reading reveal Baldwin’s historically and existentially informed artistic vision, summed up in the terms hindsight and insight. His thoughtful, uncomfortable engagement with the past leads to a recuperated relationship to the community and constitutes existential hindsight, which informs his inward understanding of himself—his insight. This investigation draws on various works from Baldwin’s fiction, essays, interviews, and correspondence to arrive at a better understanding of the writer’s intellectual and artistic development, focusing especially on the professed objectives behind, and major revisions of, the novel. I conclude the essay through a close reading of the conversion scene that constitutes Part Three of Go Tell It on the Mountain.
This essay analyzes how James Baldwin’s late novel If Beale Street Could Talk represents Black women’s care work in the face of social death as an example of how Black women act as surrogates for Black liberation giving birth to a new world and possibilities of freedom for Black (male) people. Within the politics of Black nationalism, Black women were affective workers playing a vital role in the (re)creation of heteronormative family structures that formed the basis of Black liberation cohered by a belief in the power of patriarchy to make way for communal freedom. This essay demonstrates how Beale Street’s imagining of freedom centers not on what Black women do to support themselves or each other, but on the needs of the community at large, with embodied sacrifice as a presumed condition of such liberation.
This essay’s close interrogation of James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room allows us to see one aspect of how sexual shame functions: it shows how shame exposes anxiety not only about the feminizing force of homosexuality, but about how being the object of the gaze is feminizing—and therefore shameful. It also shows that the paradigm of the closet is not the metaphor of privacy and enclosure on one hand and openness and liberation on the other that it is commonly thought to be, but instead is a site of illusory control over whether one is available to be seen and therefore humiliated by being feminized. Further, the essay reveals the paradox of denial, where one must first know the thing that is at the same time being disavowed or denied. The narrative requirements of fictions such as Giovanni’s Room demonstrate this, as it requires that the narrator both know, in order to narrate, and not know something at the same time.
Filmmaker Karen Thorsen gave us James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the award-winning documentary that is now considered a classic. First broadcast on PBS/American Masters in August, 1989—just days after what would have been Baldwin’s 65th birthday—the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. It was not the film Thorsen intended to make. Beginning in 1986, she and Baldwin had been collaborating on a very different film project: a “nonfiction feature” about the history, research, and writing of Baldwin’s next book, Remember This House. It was also going to be a film about progress: how far we had come, how far we still had to go, before we learned to trust our common humanity. The following memoir explores how and why their collaboration began. This recollection will be serialized in two parts, with the second installment appearing in James Baldwin Review’s seventh issue, due out in the fall of 2021.
Born in New York City only fifteen months apart, the Harlem-raised James Baldwin and the privileged William F. Buckley, Jr. could not have been more different, but they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil rights movement. By the time they met in February 1965 to debate race and the American Dream at the Cambridge Union, Buckley—a founding father of the American conservative movement—was determined to sound the alarm about a man he considered an “eloquent menace.” For his part, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul. The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy. In this article I introduce readers to the story at the heart of my new book about Baldwin and Buckley, The Fire Is Upon Us.
“Rebranding James Baldwin and His Queer Others” was a session held at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in November 2019 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The papers gathered here show how Baldwin’s writings and life story participate in dialogues with other authors and artists who probe issues of identity and identification, as well as with other types of texts and non-American stories, boldly addressing theoretical and political perspectives different from his own. Nick Radel’s temporal challenge to reading novels on homoerotic male desire asks of us a leap of faith, one that makes it possible to read race as not necessarily a synonym for “Black,” but as a powerful historical and sexual trope that resists “over-easy” binaries of Western masculinity. Ernest L. Gibson’s engagement with Beauford Delaney’s brilliant art and the ways in which it enabled the teenage Baldwin’s “dark rapture” of self-discovery as a writer reminds us that “something [has been missing] in our discussions of male relationships.” Finally, Nigel Hatton suggests “a relationship among Baldwin, Denmark, and Giovanni’s Room that adds another thread to the important scholarship on his groundbreaking work of fiction that has impacted African-American literature, Cold War studies, transnational American studies, feminist thought, and queer theory.” All three essays enlarge our assessment of Baldwin’s contribution to understanding the ways gender and sexuality always inflect racialized Western masculinities. Thus, they help us work to better gauge the extent of Baldwin’s influence right here and right now.
This article traces the evolution of James Baldwin’s discourse on the Arab–Israeli conflict as connected to his own evolution as a Black thinker, activist, and author. It creates a nuanced trajectory of the transformation of Baldwin’s thought on the Arab–Israeli conflict and Black and Jewish relations in the U.S. This trajectory is created through the lens of Baldwin’s relationship with some of the major radical Black movements and organizations of the twentieth century: Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, and, finally, the Black Power movement, especially the Black Panther Party. Using Baldwin as an example, the article displays the Arab–Israeli conflict as a terrain Black radicals used to articulate their visions of the nature of Black oppression in the U.S., strategies of resistance, the meaning of Black liberation, and articulations of Black identity. It argues that the study of Baldwin’s transformation from a supporter of the Zionist project of nation-building to an advocate of Palestinian rights and national aspirations reveals much about the ideological transformations of the larger Black liberation movement.
This article is a review of a symposium entitled, “In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney,” held at the University of Tennessee on 19–21 February 2020.
Recounting the failures of the United States to adequately address the COVID-19 pandemic, reflecting on the parade of mendacity that has encapsulated the 45th presidency, and interpreting Baldwin’s call to be responsible to our children, Justin A. Joyce introduces the sixth volume of James Baldwin Review.
This review article charts the general direction of scholarship in James Baldwin studies between the years 2016 and 2017, reflecting on important scholarly events and publications of the period and identifying notable trends in criticism. Surveying the field as a whole, the most notable features are the “political turn” that seeks to connect Baldwin’s social insights from the past to the present, and the ongoing access to and interest in the Baldwin archive. In addition to these larger trends, there is continued interest in situating Baldwin in national, regional, and geographical contexts as well as interest with how he grapples with and illuminates issues of gender and sexuality.