He was the stepson of a preacher man, became a preacher himself in his late teens, then grew sceptical of Christianity, abandoned it and took up his real vocation, being a writer and a thinking activist. Although the times were not propitious for someone black and gay – this was the United States in the mid-20th century – James Baldwin beat it all.
He faced down the burning, seething hatred directed at “Negroes”, the prejudice towards “homosexuals” and the ever-present suspicion of intellectuals and writers. He had, it’s true, left the US in 1948 because of racism and homophobia, moving to France, but he was to return in 1957 and play a significant role in the civil rights movement.
Back but nervous, Baldwin went to the South, to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he met Martin Luther King Jr, and Montgomery, Alabama. Two essays resulted: “The Hard Kind of Courage” in Harper’s magazine and “Nobody Knows My Name” in the Partisan Review, whose editor had encouraged the trip. Over the next five years, Baldwin published further essays about race relations – or more aptly their lack – including in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.
So it was that Baldwin was ensconced within the movement by the time of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963. Just three months before, on 17 May, Time magazine had put Baldwin on its cover. Inside, it had declared, “There is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”
And yet, the deepest and cruellest of ironies lay in wait on that day in Washington DC. For all its focus on freedom, equality and justice, the movement was hostile to gay people. Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, a close confidant of King’s, were the movement’s only publicly known gay men. But despite King crediting Rustin for the success of the march, he later distanced himself from Rustin. In the case of Baldwin, alienation began that day.
Baldwin had originally been invited to talk at the Lincoln Memorial, where King gave his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Suddenly, however, Baldwin’s name vanished from the line-up of speakers. The reason for his being disinvited? That his remarks might prove too combustible. Set alongside the absence of any women speakers, it was a sad moment for the movement, and even more so in retrospect.
It is tantalising to imagine what Baldwin would have said and how he would have delivered it. Given his early background in the church and as a sometime preacher, he might well have lit up the occasion. This is not to suggest that he would or could have eclipsed King, but even a cursory reading of Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, his first and semi-autobiographical novel, hints at the power of his oratory.
Thus it was that The Great March on Washington, as it is sometimes also called, saw Baldwin with his longtime friends, the actors Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando, but did not hear from him. It is one of history’s great missed moments of opportunity.
If one recalls just a handful of Baldwin quotes that have become famous and notable, you get a sense of what the 250 000 people pressed around the Lincoln Memorial might have heard. Here is Baldwin in his own words, on a variety of subjects.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.”
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realise the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”
And on being alive, there is this imperishable passage from Go Tell It On the Mountain.
“At one moment, head thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow, he sat at the piano, singing and playing; and then, like a great, black cat in trouble in the jungle, he stiffened and trembled, and cried out. Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord Jesus! He struck on the piano one last, wild note, and threw up his hands, palms upwards, stretched wide apart.”