An Excerpt from Bill V. Mullen’s New Biography, James
Baldwin: Living in Fire, and an Interview with the
Bill V. Mullen
This excerpt from James Baldwin: Living in Fire details a key
juncture in Baldwin’s life, 1957–59, when he was transformed by a
visit to the South to write about the civil rights movement while grappling with
the meaning of the Algerian Revolution. The excerpt shows Baldwin understanding
black and Arab liberation struggles as simultaneous and parallel moments in the
rise of Third World, anti-colonial and anti-racist U.S. politics. It also shows
Baldwin’s emotional and psychological vulnerability to repressive state
violence experienced by black and Arab citizens in the U.S., France, and
Artists, scholars, and popular media often describe James Baldwin as
revolutionary, either for his written work or for his role in the civil rights
movement. But what does it mean to be revolutionary? This article contends that
thoughtlessly calling James Baldwin revolutionary obscures and erases the
non-revolutionary strategies and approaches he employed in his contributions to
the civil rights movement and to race relations as a whole. Frequent use of
revolutionary as a synonym for “great” or
“important” creates an association suggesting that all good things
must be revolutionary, and that anything not revolutionary is insufficient,
effectively erasing an entire spectrum of social and political engagement from
view. Baldwin’s increasing relevance to our contemporary moment suggests
that his non-revolutionary tactics are just as important as the revolutionary
approaches employed by civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X or Martin Luther
This article provides an introduction to this special section of James Baldwin Review 7 devoted to Baldwin and film. Jackson considers Baldwin’s distinct approach to film criticism by pairing him with James Agee, another writer who wrote fiction as well as nonfiction in several genres, and who produced a large body of film criticism, especially during the 1940s. While Agee, a white southerner born almost a generation before Baldwin, might seem an unlikely figure to place alongside Baldwin, the two shared a great deal in terms of temperament and vision, and their film writings reveal a great deal of consensus in their diagnoses of American pathologies. Another important context for Baldwin’s complex relationship to film is television, which became a dominant media form during the 1950s and exerted a great influence upon both the mainstream reception of the civil rights movement and Baldwin’s reception as a public intellectual from the early 1960s to the end of his life. Finally, the introduction briefly discusses the articles that constitute this special section.
James Baldwin, William F. Buckley,
Jr., and the 1965 Cambridge Debate
Daniel Robert McClure
The 1965 debate at Cambridge University between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley,
Jr., posed the question: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the Expense of the
American Negro?” Within the contours of the debate, Baldwin and Buckley wrestled with the
ghosts of settler colonialism and slavery in a nation founded on freedom and equality.
Framing the debate within the longue durée, this essay examines the deep cultural currents
related to the American racial paradox at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Underscoring the changing language of white resistance against black civil rights, the
essay argues that the Baldwin and Buckley debate anticipated the ways the U.S. would
address racial inequality in the aftermath of the civil rights era and the dawn of
neoliberalism in the 1970s.
A Conversation with Bill V. Mullen, the author of James Baldwin: Living in Fire
William J. Maxwell
Bill V. Mullen
William J. Maxwell, editor of James Baldwin: The FBI File (2017), interviews Bill V. Mullen on his 2019 biography, James Baldwin: Living in Fire, along the way touching on both Baldwin’s early internationalism and his relevance to the current wave of racial discord and interracial possibility in the United States.
Taking its cue from recent scholarly work on the concept of time in African American
literature, this essay argues that, while both James Baldwin and Malcolm X refuse
gradualism and insist on “the now” as the moment of civil rights’ fulfillment, Baldwin
also remains troubled by the narrowness assumed by a life, politics, or ethics limited to
the present moment. In his engagement with Malcolm’s life and legacy—most notably in One
Day, When I Was Lost, his screen adaptation of Malcolm’s autobiography—he works toward a
temporal mode that would be both punctual and expansive. What he proposes as the operative
time of chronoethics is an “untimely now”: he seeks to replace Malcolm’s unyielding
punctuality with a different nowness, one that rejects both calls for “patience,” endemic
to any politics that rests on the Enlightenment notion of “perfectibility,” and the
breathless urgency that prevents the subject from seeing anything beyond the oppressive
system he wants overthrown. Both thinkers find the promise of such untimeliness in their
sojourns beyond the United States.
As a technology able to picture and embody the temporality of the past, cinema has become central to the mediation of memory in modern cultural life. The memory of film scenes and movies screens, cinema and cinema-going, has become integral to the placement and location of film within the cultural imagination of this century and the last. This book is a sustained, interdisciplinary perspective on memory and film from early cinema to the present. The first section examines the relationship between official and popular history and the constitution of memory narratives in and around the production and consumption of American cinema. The second section examines the politics of memory in a series of chapters that take as their focus three pivotal sites of national conflict in postwar America. This includes the war in Vietnam, American race relations and the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of marginality in the geographic and cultural borderlands of the US. The book explores the articulation of Vietnam. The final section concentrates on the issue of mediation; it explores how technological and semiotic shifts in the cultural terrain have influenced the coding and experience of memory in contemporary cinema. It considers both the presence of music and colour in nostalgia films of the 1990s and the impact of digital and video technologies on the representational determinants of mediated memory. The book also examines the stakes of cultural remembering in the United States and the means by which memory has been figured through Hollywood cinema.
Rhetoric and Identity in James Baldwin’s Revolution
Davis W. Houck
Despite the proliferation of interest in James Baldwin across popular culture and the
academy, few, if any, critical studies of his public oratory have been conducted. This is
unfortunate and ironic—unfortunate because Baldwin was a marvelous orator, and ironic in
that his preferred solution to what ailed whites and blacks as the Civil Rights movement
unfolded was thoroughly rhetorical. That is, Baldwin’s racial rhetorical revolution
involved a re-valuing of the historical evidence used to keep blacks enslaved both
mentally and physically across countless generations. Moreover, for Baldwin the act of
naming functions to chain both whites and blacks to a version of American history
psychologically damaging to both. Three speeches that Baldwin delivered in 1963 amid the
crucible of civil rights protest illustrate these claims.
James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Civil Rights
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.