If you already know a good deal about African American author James Baldwin and the arc of his extraordinary career, you will enjoy and benefit from journalist Herb Boyd's new book, Baldwin's Harlem, more so than if your knowledge is slim.
Boyd admits upfront it's a narrow slice of James Baldwin history—specifically how Harlem plays into Baldwin's life and literary career—and it's a correct assessment. But the book is often too narrow for those who aren't Baldwinphiles.
That being said, there's much to learn in this well-researched, academically penned book. It's already spurred me to check out a handful of other Baldwin titles. (If you're looking for a fast-paced, narrative story, though, this isn't it.)
Boyd, a well-known writer from Harlem himself, traces Baldwin's roots from his Harlem Hospital birth in 1924 through his childhood and teenage years at DeWitt Clinton High School with such to-be luminary friends as Richard Avedon, Elia Kazan, and Lee Strasbourg. Baldwin remained friends with all three: he supplied the text to Avedon's 1963 Nothing Personal collection of portraits and worked with Kazan at the Actors Studio in the late '50s.
Baldwin's Notes from a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, of course, shot him onto the turbulent '60s scene, where he dialogued with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, sparred with black writer Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and lent help to politicos Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver.
Partly because Baldwin wrote and spoke on topics taboo at the time—homosexuality and interracial relations—critics sometimes reacted to his work with strident criticism. His bold way of speaking truth to power ignited his literary career even as it created nervousness among the mainstream American public. Banned from speaking at the 1963 March on Washington (noted Malcolm X, "They wouldn't let Baldwin get up there because they know Baldwin is liable to say anything"), he wrote an open letter to Angela Davis, published in The New York Times Review of Books in 1971 after her arrest and later acquittal on gun charges that raised many hackles, even though Baldwin himself decried violence.
Boyd claims Harlem never really left Baldwin, though Baldwin physically no longer lived there after his 20s. The writer's navigation of the streets of the blues-rich ghetto was at Baldwin's core, says Boyd, and though many other black luminaries came to reside and be associated with Harlem, they weren't necessarily born and raised there.
"There is a sense in which I could say I never have left Harlem," Baldwin says in a letter to a friend in 1943. "But there is another sense in which I certainly never can go back there, if only because [the] Harlem in which I was born exists no longer. And though that rupture has something to do with race, it also has something to do with a nature or quality or the special-ness —I don't know what the word is—of human experience."
While Baldwin's literary stature is well known throughout the world, it's irksome to Boyd that, unlike the Beatles (who also never lived in their native hometown after their teens yet were deeply stamped by it) and Liverpool, whose streets are littered with place markers heralding the Fab Four, Harlem has no physical monument, street, or building named after their native son.
Says poet and author Quincy Troupe, another Harlemite and Baldwin fan: "Look, they have a street named after Pedro Pietri, the Puerto Rican poet down on the Lower East Side, but there's nothing here for Baldwin. We need to be able to stand in front of our young people and point to a statue and tell them who it is and what they were about…. This is something we have to do and it's about time we did it." Indeed.
Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications.
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