Monika Gehlawat

Using political and critical theory, this article identifies in James Baldwin a model for citizenship unique to the Black artist who assumed the dual responsibilities of art practice and political activism. I engage with Baldwin’s fiction and his writing about other Black artists working in theater, film, dance, and music during the period of the civil rights movement. Across his career, Baldwin’s prevailing view was that, because of their history, Black artists have the singular, and indeed superlative, capacity to make art as praxis. Baldwin explains that the craft of the Black artist depends upon representing truths, rather than fantasies, about their experience, so that they are at once artists pursuing freedom and citizens pursuing justice. This article pays particular attention to the tension between living a public, political life and the need for privacy to create art, and ultimately the toll this takes on the citizen artist. Baldwin demonstrates how the community of mutual support he finds among Black artists aids in their survival. In his writings on Sidney Poitier and Lorraine Hansberry, his friendships with Beauford Delaney and Josephine Baker, as well as his reviews of music and literature, Baldwin assembles a collective he refers to as “I and my tribe.”

James Baldwin Review
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James Baldwin, Teju Cole, and Glenn Ligon
Monika Gehlawat

This essay uses Edward Said’s theory of affiliation to consider the relationship between James Baldwin and contemporary artists Teju Cole and Glenn Ligon, both of whom explicitly engage with their predecessor’s writing in their own work. Specifically, Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” (1953) serves a through-line for this discussion, as it is invoked in Cole’s essay “Black Body” and Ligon’s visual series, also titled Stranger in the Village. In juxtaposing these three artists, I argue that they express the dialectical energy of affiliation by articulating ongoing concerns of race relations in America while distinguishing themselves from Baldwin in terms of periodization, medium-specificity, and their broader relationship to Western art practice. In their adoption of Baldwin, Cole and Ligon also imagine a way beyond his historical anxieties and writing-based practice, even as they continue to reinscribe their own work with his arguments about the African-American experience. This essay is an intermedial study that reads fiction, nonfiction, language-based conceptual art and mixed media, as well as contemporary politics and social media in order consider the nuances of the African-American experience from the postwar period to our contemporary moment. Concerns about visuality/visibility in the public sphere, narrative voice, and self-representation, as well as access to cultural artifacts and aesthetic engagement, all emerge in my discussion of this constellation of artists. As a result, this essay identifies an emblematic, though not exclusive, strand of African-American intellectual thinking that has never before been brought together. It also demonstrates the ongoing relevance of Baldwin’s thinking for the contemporary political scene in this country.

James Baldwin Review