Literature and Theatre
Having returned to the United States to work on his screenplay about Malcolm X, James Baldwin was interviewed for the Los Angeles Free Press in 1968. The interview offers a rare and valuable glimpse of Baldwin’s style of engagement with a new generation of radical Black activists whose current vogue Baldwin understood as valuable, whose new appraisal of history Baldwin had both helped to create and needed to learn from, and whose dangerous predicament Baldwin recognized and felt partly responsible for. Ed Pavlić provides a contextual and historical introduction to that interview, which is reproduced here with permission from the Free Press.
One theme in James Baldwin’s work that has gained increasing attention in the last quarter-century is music. What has been missing from this discussion, however, has been a thematic survey of Baldwin’s writing on music and its implications for the twenty-first century. This article focuses on select music-centered texts to examine what Baldwin’s ideas about music reveal about history in our own times. Multiple themes in his writing show how racial slavery creates—in the present tense—differences in experiences and musical expression between people constructed as Black and as white. Baldwin’s writing illuminates the significance of racial slavery in American music history even beyond genres associated with Black Americans.
This article compares the works of James Baldwin and Jean Améry, a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. It attempts to unpack the ethical and political implications of their shared conception of the temporality of trauma. The experiences of the victim of anti-Semitism and the victim of anti-Black racism not only parallel one another, but their mutual incapacity to let go of the injustice of the past also generates a unique ethico-political response. The backward glance of the victim, the avowed incapacity to heal, as well as the phantasmatic desire to reverse time all guide this unique response. Instead of seeking forgiveness for the wrong done and declaring that all forms of resentment are illegitimate, Baldwin and Améry show us that channeling the revenge fantasy that so often attends the temporality of trauma is the material precondition of actually ending that trauma. This ultimately suggests that, for both thinkers, anything less than a new, revolutionary humanism equipped with an internationalist political project would betray the victims’ attempt to win back their dignity.
James Baldwin was a vocal critic of Hollywood, but he was also a cinephile, and his critique of film was not so much of the medium itself, but of the uses to which it was put. Baldwin saw in film the chance to transform both politics and art—if only film could be transformed itself. This essay blends readings of archival materials, literature, film, and print culture to examine three distinct modes in Baldwin’s ongoing quest to revolutionize film. First, I argue, literature served as a key site to practice being a filmmaker, as Baldwin adapted cinematic grammars in his fiction and frequently penned scenes of filmgoing in which he could, in effect, direct his own movies. Secondly, I show that starting in the 1960s, Baldwin took a more direct route to making movies, as he composed screenplays, formed several production companies, and attempted to work in both Hollywood and the independent film scene in Europe. Finally, I explore how Baldwin sought to change cinema as a performer himself, in particular during his collaboration on Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley’s documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982). This little-known film follows Baldwin as he revisits key sites from the civil rights movement and reconnects with activist friends as he endeavors to construct a revisionist history of race in America and to develop a media practice capable of honoring Black communities.
James Baldwin’s arrest in Paris in December 1949 gave birth to his perfect storm. His ten days in Fresnes jail weakened him physically and emotionally. He made it out, but upon release he was mired in self-doubt and enveloped in a bout of depression. He returned to his hotel, ready to try to get back to his life, however daunting that effort would be. The hotelier’s demand that he settle his bill, and do it quickly, awakened his obsession with suicide. He simply could not handle one more obstacle in his path; he chose to kill himself in his room. Ironically, he saved his life when he jumped off a chair with a sheet around his neck. In a matter of seconds his death wish was replaced by his equally obsessive need to write, witness, think, party, drink, challenge, and love.
The distinguished critic Professor Cheryl A. Wall (1948–2020) was the Board of Governors Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her path-breaking scholarship in two highly influential monographs, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995) and Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (2005), helped to ensure that twentieth-century Black women writers were recognized and valued for their power, genius, and complexity. Her most recent book, On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay (2018), places the essay form at the center of African American literary achievement. Throughout her long career she supported and enabled Black students, and championed racial diversity and gender equality at every level of the university. An Associate Editor of James Baldwin Review, she was the most generous and astute of readers, as well as a wise editor. In this memorial section, fifteen colleagues, former students, and interlocutors share their remembrances and honor her legacy.
Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) has proven challenging since its publication because readers and critics have trouble classifying it. The challenge may be related to a common feature of Baldwin criticism, namely a tendency to compare late career works to early ones and to find them lacking: the experimental nature of later works of nonfiction like No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) does not square easily with the more conventional essays that made Baldwin famous in his early years. I attempt to reframe The Devil Finds Work not through a comparison to other Baldwin essays, but rather through a comparison to his fiction, specifically the novel Giovanni’s Room. I posit that a greater appreciation for Devil can result from thinking of it as a story, specifically the story of a failed love affair.
Filmmaker Karen Thorsen gave us James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the award-winning documentary that is now considered a classic. First broadcast on PBS/American Masters in August, 1989—just days after what would have been Baldwin’s sixty-fifth birthday—the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. It was not the film Thorsen intended to make. Beginning in 1986, Baldwin and Thorsen had been collaborating on a very different film project: a “nonfiction feature” about the history, research, and writing of Baldwin’s next book, “Remember This House.” It was also going to be a film about progress: about how far we had come, how far we still have to go, before we learn to trust our common humanity. But that project ended abruptly. On 1 December 1987, James Baldwin died—and “Remember This House,” book and film died with him. Suddenly, Thorsen’s mission changed: the world needed to know what they had lost. Her alliance with Baldwin took on new meaning. The following memoir—the second of two serialized parts—explores how and why their collaboration began. The first installment appeared in the sixth volume of James Baldwin Review, in the fall of 2020; the next stage of their journey starts here.
This article uses Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” to consider that literary mode’s corollary in the 1990s New Black Cinema. It argues that recent African American movies posit an alternative to the politics and aesthetics of films by a director such as Spike Lee, one that evinces a set of qualities Baldwin calls for in his essay about Black literature. Among these are what recent scholars such as Ann Anlin Cheng have called racial melancholy or what Kevin Quashie describes as Black “quiet,” as well as variations on Yogita Goyal’s diaspora romance. Films such as Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) and Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) offer a cinematic version of racial narrative at odds with the protest tradition I associate with earlier Black directors, a newly resonant cinema that we might see as both a direct and an indirect legacy of Baldwin’s views on African American culture and politics.
In this semi-biographical short story, the relationship between James Baldwin and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and its culmination in their epic confrontation in New York City on 24 May 1963, is portrayed through the lens of an unidentified fictive narrator. In the midst of heightened racial tensions, Baldwin has been tasked with bringing together a delegation of prominent Black US personalities to meet with the Attorney General and share their views on the measures necessary to combat segregation and racism. The meeting has barely begun before the naivety of the administration’s view of the national situation becomes clear, and the atmosphere in the room grows increasingly strained. “The Fire Inside” has never before appeared in print. An earlier version of the story was broadcast by Swedish Radio on 29 November 2019.