I’ve written two manuscripts totaling a quarter-million words re-casting what had been known about Baldwin since then. One is with his Estate who, for over 25 years, has been notoriously protective of his work and legacy. The other is taking its turns with publishers. The following is a small small slice of a what this work has entailed and uncovered centered around one specific instance of political censorship I’ve encountered as a result of what I know and how I found out.
A little background. Between his appearance on the mass-audience literary scene in the 1950s and his death in 1987, James Baldwin engaged the political and literary culture of the United States in a complex and intense series of battles (in 1962 he called it “a lover’s war”). The nature of those contests informed the unique structure of his work and, among other things, prevented the usual literary honors. Baldwin won no National Book Awards, no Pulitzers, murmurs of a Nobel Prize in the early 60s vanished upon the appearance of his more aggressively political persona after 1963. Even over 25 years after his death, efforts to connect with one of the world’s most important and undervalued 20th century writers bear symptoms that accompanied his career during his life.
Some foreground. Cultural agencies in New York City have declared 2014 “The Year of James Baldwin” and are preparing honors and celebrations of the writer’s life and work. At Northwestern University, the James Baldwin Review has been created to publish work in keeping with the writer’s legacy. There is an upswing in interest in Baldwin, international and national conferences dot the academic landscape. I’m involved in some of it: will present in April, 2014 in New York City on a panel for The Poetry Society of America about Baldwin, the poet; will talk about Baldwin and Ray Charles in Carnegie Hall at the conference in Montpellier, France in June; I’m an Associate Editor at the James Baldwin Review.
In the background of the foreground, one wonders. High profile reviews of Baldwin’s The Cross of Redemption (2010) in The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Review of Books were tip-toeing and tepid, at best. In critiques and apologies—indeed, even in Randall Kenan’s “Introduction” to The Cross of Redemption—many of Baldwin’s most important, most political stances are treated as if they were undisciplined acts of rhetorical fury, anachronistic radicalisms, or simple mistakes in thinking. This in response to the work of a man who cared enough about the precision of thought and the use of language—to cite one of many many instances—to bolt a polite 1965 Harvard cocktail party to stunned silence by screaming at the famed writer, Philip Slater, over his use of the term “siblings” to describe Baldwin’s brothers and sisters. In sum, if one has been paying attention—and I’ve been paying very close attention—, one wonders how the substance of Baldwin’s work can be celebrated in the United States in terms that don’t elide or avoid the inevitable collision he scripted between the human condition and what he termed the American “state of mind” that approaches life as if it can—or even should—be made happy, clean, and safe, American destinies as if they’re the result of a correctly administered and encapsulated approach to individuality. Baldwin himself would surely have had his doubts. In the 1980 documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine, he said that historical honors and monuments such as the King Memorial in Atlanta were designed to make their subjects “irrelevant to the history that produced them.” So, Hell, I wondered. Then this.
Two years after they’d invited and accepted it, guest editors of a Special Issue on James Baldwin due to appear this spring in the academic publication African American Review (published out of St Louis University) were told that an essay—written by me—was being pulled because it ‘“gratuitously attacks a sitting U.S. President,’ which ‘would be indefensible’ to the journal.” Grounded in an apprehension—heretofore impossible and still, in ways, legally, unmentionable—of Baldwin’s poetic-political point of view, my critique which analyses the context of President Obama’s 2010 joke about the Predator Drone Program being used to defend his daughters against a group of pop singers is neither gratuitous nor is it indefensible. I situated my point of view quite precisely inside a musically-informed analytical device at the core of Baldwin’s most famous single book, The Fire Next Time. Via this insight, and balanced against brilliant moments of analysis in Obama’s Dreams From My Father, I pursue clues as to how we might read the structure and limited power of—and even grim features of how one becomes obliged by—the office of President. The piece isolates forces that already pose lethal dangers to villagers and soldiers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia and that echo dangers to U.S. citizens abroad and at home, and even to the President himself, in a volatile social and political climate. The Special Issue specifically called for a range of politically and culturally engaged work including essays that employ “Baldwin’s life and work to consider the ascendancy of U. S. President Barack Obama” and “Baldwin’s stance on capitalism and imperialism and the relevance of his morally sophisticated conceptualization of race to our post-civil rights moment.”
While a critique of the requisites and imperatives of American Presidential power is perfectly defensible, the journal’s editorial practice—censorious in that there was never a dispute as to the accuracy, relevance or truth of any part of my essay though there is always the hanging chad of style—is “indefensible” in any intellectual context. Far more, it chafes past the point of absurdity against the fact that James Baldwin laced his career as a writer and speaker with pointed critiques, ranging from solemn to sardonic, of political power including all sitting U.S. Presidents whose terms overlapped with his working life. And, intensifying the indefensibility, Baldwin himself encountered editorial pressure, censorship, and surveillance at every turn and he was no stranger to politically motivated and targeted violence. Between the years of 1963 and 1973, many of his close political allies and personal friends, and a few of his most powerful political opponents, were attacked, imprisoned, and murdered at times shortly after being in his company.
Now, back to the background: a few things I do know and can say. In May, 1963, in the days immediately following nationally televised violence in Birmingham, Alabama, Baldwin filmed a documentary in San Francisco. The film, Take This Hammer, contains moments of political commentary by Baldwin and by many black residents of the city at the time. Many comments focused on gentrification, the politics of “redevelopment,” which, in San Francisco, Baldwin was told meant “removal of Negroes.” According to his role in the film, he listened to local testimony and used it to extrapolate on national politics. During the preceding week, on a speaking tour of California sponsored by CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) Baldwin told Roger Stone of Time magazine that he didn’t plan go to Birmingham during the tumult of that week. But, he said, “If I’m called, I will go. I don’t want to get castrated any more than anyone else. But I will go.” During the week that Take This Hammer was being filmed, Baldwin’s portrait was on the cover of Time. But, his statement about castration in Birmingham wasn’t in the article.
Early in Take This Hammer, which was aired on KQED Television in the spring of 1964, Baldwin said: “What is really crucial is whether or not the country, the people in the country, the citizenry, are able to recognize that there is no moral distance, no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. One has got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.” The point being that the politics of race and “Negro removal” were national, as well as local, issues. Between the final cut and the airing of the show, however, nearly fifteen more minutes of the film were cut out by KQED directors who thought some comments were incendiary. Baldwin was furious. Even though the director, Richard O. Moore, had nothing to do with it, Baldwin still never spoke to him again. In 2013, a “Director’s Cut” of Take This Hammer was released with the edited footage restored wherein we find that even Baldwin’s attempt to tell it like it is and put it where it’s at was cut and spliced before it aired. In the original, he said: “What is really crucial is whether or not the country, the people in the country, the citizenry, are able to recognize that there is no moral distance, no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. And there is no moral distance—which is to say no distance—between President Kennedy and Bull Connor because the same machine put them both in power. One has got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.” The difference (in bold) between the two statements is clear. The violence in Birmingham was major headline news at the time. The dangers in San Francisco were, as Baldwin then put it, “under the rug.” And, the dangers to the President—whose brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Baldwin would have a famously acrimonious meeting with within the week, on May 24, 1963—became clear on November 22, 1963. Of course, the censored portion of Baldwin’s comment connects those dangers explicitly.
In the foreground of the background. Baldwin addressed the U.S. Presidency in multiple registers. According to one biographer, David Leeming, Baldwin once called Richard M. Nixon a “‘motherfucker’ from the pulpit of St. John the Divine.” For the record, when asked what he thought about it, the new dean of the cathedral was heard to remark, “It’s about time someone did.” Baldwin’s political critique was non-stop, pro-human, anti-violent—as opposed to non-violent—, anti-capitalist, deeply soulful and he meant it and he lived it. In “Notes on the House of Bondage,” a November, 1980 piece in The Nation, published just before Ronald Reagan’s landslide defeat of Jimmy Carter, he wrote: “I certainly don’t want [my tribe of nieces and nephews] to believe that Carter and Reagan—or Anderson—are the best people this country can produce. That despair would force me onto the road taken by the late, Guyana-based Jim Jones.” Baldwin would certainly perceive the difference between President Obama and Ronald Reagan and, without a doubt, he’d critique Obama’s role and the role of the power wielded by the U.S. Presidency nonetheless. Maybe all the more. His political critique was far beyond distinctions between American political parties. Of the election preceding the one above, in “A Review of Roots,” published in The New York Times in 1976, he wrote: “There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it.”
The interiors of the background. In a 1964 essay, “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin made one of his most brilliant and important personal–political observations. He said the crimes and failures of American political power are rooted in the private incoherence of a panicked population, a people who, possibly more than any other people, at once, needed and feared each other. He wrote:
Right now you find the most unexpected people building bomb shelters. If we had, as human beings, on a personal and private level, our personal authority, we would know better; but because we are so uncertain of all these things, some of us, apparently, are willing to spend the rest of our lives underground in concrete. . . People who don’t know who they are privately, accept as we have accepted for nearly 15 years, the fantastic disaster which we call American foreign policy, and in the incoherence of the one is an exact reflection of the incoherence of the other. (241)
One point in my—now censored—essay was to point out to what extent this is still the case. In effect, the Florida “Stand Your Ground” laws and the “Homeland Security” programs inherited from President Bush and furthered by President Obama are echoes of each other, each an echo of a profoundly American pulse—a fear of life, a fear, really, of being touched, of being changed—that Baldwin kept his finger on for most of his career and certainly until his death. In that climate, President Obama is forced to act out the role of the tough guy in ways that contradict who we suspect he is, what we know he knows. Part of this role, and the danger it masks, prevents him from featuring ways he champions human rights, especially black human rights, such as the Department of Justice case against Chicago Police Commander John Burge (convicted of perjury instead of torture because of the statue of limitations).
After the George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict, President Obama said that, when he was young, he could have been Trayvon Martin. And, that was a historic and important thing for an American President to say about a young, dead, black man. But, the dangers—the domestic dangers—simmer and flare everywhere, and rage on in places like Chicago, in ways that, during the Kennedy administration, Baldwin recognized, in ways the country witnessed in shock and horror on November 22, 1963. Baldwin was horrified then; but he wasn’t shocked. For at least the last 25 years of his career, he urged the nation to confront the intensity and immediacy of real, present dangers, often the dangers we pose to each other in political, social, personal—even in intimate—terms. In 1961 he told Studs Terkel “freedom is very dangerous. Anything else is disastrous but freedom is dangerous.” Baldwin understood that American danger vividly; he bravely worked against it. Leeming’s biography doesn’t mention that while Baldwin was on stage, for instance, in St. John the Divine Cathedral to accept the award for The Artist as Prophet, at least one member of his family sat in the audience, cold with terror and scanning the crowd, convinced somehow that he was going to be shot right there and then. Today, where I live in Athens, GA, flags, bumper stickers and billboards advertise assault weapons. Millions of Americans suppress their fear—to name just one—of gun violence everyday.
Well, James Baldwin might be the 20th century’s most important American writer. Exactly for the reasons he’s important, he’ll be a very difficult figure to “celebrate” in this culture where eyeball hits equal success, success is the truth and money talks and the rest can walk. I’ll try to do my part. But, if even a specialized and dedicated—though one wonders dedicated to what?—journal like African American Review will censor its celebration, or at least mine, I have to wonder about other, much more high-profile endeavors. We’ll see.
Late in the “Director’s Cut” of Take This Hammer, discussing why one has to buy a non-mainstream newspaper, such as Muhammad Speaks at the time, “to find out what’s happening,” Baldwin says, “I’ve had, in my career as a writer, to deal with publishers, magazine editors especially, and they never said [that what I wrote] wasn’t true. They’d say, ‘it wasn’t for our readers,’ and that seems to make perfect sense to them, it doesn’t make any sense to me, I mean, what are they in business for?” Was that comment incendiary? So, I’m told, my essay outlining how Baldwin’s analytical skill focuses contemporary political urgency—and danger—was cut from the African American Review: Special Issue on James Baldwin because my “comments would jar with readers.” No matter that, over 50 years ago, Baldwin told Life magazine: “I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.” The guest editors told me that they were shocked by the decision, but, alas, they hope I understand that they “have a responsibility to get the issue out.” Quite. I’ll chalk it up as another reason why, in the United States, when everything’s over and nothing means anything anymore, when the kid’s on the line for a one-and-one, down 12, with seven seconds left, we say, “it’s academic.” Academic or not, the editorial decisions such as those of Nathan Grant at African American Review suppress the open exchange of issues both crucial to understanding James Baldwin’s life and work as well as crucial issues at play in (and forces that prey on) our lives on levels from the most public to the most private, from intimate to local to international dimensions of our experience.
In a speech at UC Berkeley in April, 1979, Baldwin said: “Now the late J. Edgar Hoover is in his grave—God bless him—a lot of what I knew, and many other people knew, during those years, and only a fraction (!) of what we knew, during all those years, can now be, more or less, discussed.” At this point, I’ll ask that you pardon me while still I wonder: can it?
This is the first appearance of “Welcome to the Errordome”: Are Editors Still Afraid of James Baldwin?