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Space and the Speculative in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”
Maleda Belilgne

In a 1961 interview with the journalist Studs Terkel, James Baldwin offered a riveting assessment of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues.” “It’s a fantastic kind of understatement,” Baldwin tells Terkel. “It’s the way I want to write.” Baldwin hears something in Bessie, a sonic and discursive quality he aspires to and identifies as “fantastic.” This essay considers the speculative undertones of Bessie’s blues and Baldwin’s literary realism. I argue that Bessie’s doubled vocalization in “Backwater Blues” lyrically declares her immobility and circumscription, while tonally staging freedom and boundlessness. Baldwin is drawn to this dual orientation and enunciation, a vocalization that in its iteration of the real transcends the social, spatial, and imaginative limitations of that order. If we read “Sonny’s Blues” the way Baldwin hears Bessie, as a fantastic kind of understatement, we discern subtle sonic and spatial iterations of the irreal. Attending to microtonal sounds in “Sonny’s Blues”—screams, whistling, jukeboxes—I show that the speculative emerges in Baldwin’s story when the sonic overrides the racialized inscription of space.

James Baldwin Review
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The Enduring Rage of Baldwin and the Education of a White Southern Baptist Queer
Jon-Marc McDonald

Delivered in Paris at the 2016 International James Baldwin Conference just two weeks before the killing of 49 individuals at a LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida on 26 June 2016, “Relatively Conscious” explores, through the eyes of an LGBT American and the words of James Baldwin, how separate and unequal life remains for so many within the United States. Written in the tradition of memoir, it recounts how, just as Paris saved Baldwin from himself, the writer’s life was transformedupon the discovery of Baldwin.

James Baldwin Review
A Roundtable Conversation at the 2014 American Studies Convention
Brian Norman, Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, John E. Drabinski, Julius Fleming, Nigel Hatton, Dagmawi Woubshet, and Magdalena Zaborowska

Six key Baldwin scholars converged at the 2014 American Studies Association to consider the question of privacy, informed by their own book-length projects in process. Key topics included Baldwin’s sexuality and the (open) secret, historical lack of access to privacy in African-American experience, obligations for public representation in African-American literary history, Baldwin’s attempts to construct home spaces, public access to Baldwin’s private documents, and ethical matters for scholars in creating and preserving Baldwin’s legacy, including his final home in St. Paul-de-Vence.

James Baldwin Review
Justin A. Joyce

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.

James Baldwin Review
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Race and the Tragedy of American Democracy
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

In this essay, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. addresses the historical and contemporary failures of American democracy. Using the metaphor of “the magician’s serpent,” Glaude brings Walt Whitman’s views on democracy into the full light of America’s failure to resolve the problem of race. Glaude places Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) in conversation with James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street (1972) in order to construct a different sort of reading practice that can both engage with Whitman’s views on democracy and reckon with what George Hutchinson calls Whitman’s “white imperialist self and ideology” as an indication of the limits of a certain radical democratic imagining.

James Baldwin Review
The Experience of Dislocated Listening
Rashida K. Braggs

“It is only in his music [. . .] that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear,” so wrote James Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone.” Throughout his career, James Baldwin returned to this incomprehension of African-American experience. He continually privileged music in his literature, crafting his own literary blues to address it. Baldwin’s blues resonated even more powerfully and painfully for its emotional and geographical dislocation. In this article, Rashida K. Braggs argues that it was the combination of music, word, and migration that prompted Baldwin’s own deeper understanding. Exploring her term dislocated listening, Braggs investigates how listening to music while willfully dislocated from one’s cultural home prompts a deeper understanding of African-American experience. The distance disconcerts, leaving one more vulnerable, while music impels the reader, audience, and even Baldwin to identify with some harsh realities of African-American experience. Baldwin evokes the experience of dislocated listening in his life and in “Sonny’s Blues.” Braggs also creates an experience of dislocated listening through her video performance of Baldwin’s words, thus attempting to draw the reader as well into a more attuned understanding of African-American experience.

James Baldwin Review
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“In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney,” Knoxville, Tennessee, 19–21 February 2020
D. Quentin Miller

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.

James Baldwin Review
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Encounters in America
Dagmawi Woubshet

This essay draws on James Baldwin’s ideas on race, immigration, and American identity to examine the experience of contemporary African immigrants in the United States. More Africans have come to the U.S. since 1965 than through the Middle Passage, and only now is their experience gaining the full creative and critical attention it merits. Since becoming American entails adopting the racial norms and sentiments of the U.S., I explore how African immigrants contend with the process of racialization that is part and parcel of the American experience. Drawing on Baldwin’s idea of blackness as an ethical category, I also consider the limits of the concept of Afropolitanism to characterize the new wave of African immigrants in the U.S.

James Baldwin Review
An Interview with James Baldwin (1969)
Rich Blint and Nazar Büyüm

This is the first English language publication of an interview with James Baldwin (1924–87) conducted by Nazar Büyüm in 1969, Istanbul, Turkey. Deemed too long for conventional publication at the time, the interview re-emerged last year and reveals Baldwin’s attitudes about his literary antecedents and influences such as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen; his views concerning the “roles” and “duties” of a writer; his assessment of his critics; his analysis of the power and message of the Nation of Islam; his lament about the corpses that are much of the history and fact of American life; an honest examination of the relationship of poor whites to American blacks; an interrogation of the “sickness” that characterizes Americans’ commitment to the fiction and mythology of “race,” as well as the perils and seductive nature of American power.

James Baldwin Review
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James Baldwin’s Pragmatist Aesthetics
Rohan Ghatage

This essay establishes a philosophical connection between James Baldwin and the philosopher William James by investigating how the pragmatist protocol against “vicious intellectualism” offers Baldwin a key resource for thinking through how anti-black racism might be dismantled. While Richard Wright had earlier denounced pragmatism for privileging experience over knowledge, and thereby offering the black subject no means for redressing America’s constitutive hierarchies, uncovering the current of Jamesian thought that runs through Baldwin’s essays brings into view his attempt to move beyond epistemology as the primary framework for inaugurating a future unburdened by the problem of the color line. Although Baldwin indicts contemporaneous arrangements of knowledge for producing the most dehumanizing forms of racism, he does not simply attempt to rewrite the enervating meanings to which black subjects are given. Articulating a pragmatist sensibility at various stages of his career, Baldwin repeatedly suggests that the imagining and creation of a better world is predicated upon rethinking the normative value accorded to knowledge in the practice of politics. The provocative challenge that Baldwin issues for his reader is to cease the well-established privileging of knowledge, and to instead stage the struggle for freedom within an aesthetic, rather than epistemological, paradigm.

James Baldwin Review