Jimmy Baldwin, artist on fire!
The family and I spent an incredible week in New York City recently in a cramped little hotel at the corner of 24th Street and 3rd Avenue.
Unencumbered by freezing temperatures, snow and the threat of more snow, we spent a day in Times Square, took in a play on Broad Street and threw down on some sensational soul food at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem.
Arguably the hustle and bustle of that city is like no other, and that trip confirmed how much I love the place, its blend of bright lights, diversity, accents, sidewalk beggars, civility and rudeness, smells and yellow cabs darting in and about.
When it comes to places to visit, the only thing I love more than New York City is, eh, please don’t take this personally native New Yorkers, leaving New York City. You see that’s the “country” in me.
Now the truth is that the trip to The City, the trek to Harlem in particular, for reasons I cannot fathom, got me to thinking about the incredibly famous writer James Baldwin. It also got me to remembering a book I started to read a year ago on the life of Baldwin that I never got around to finishing.
That book, “James Baldwin, artist on fire,” fell out of a box while I was cleaning out the garage at that time. It had been sitting in a corner collecting dust, spider webs, obviously for a pretty long time. In truth, I had no idea I had the book and haven’t the foggiest idea as to how it ended up in my possession in the first place.
Those piercing eyes on the yellowing cover are those of a Marlboro puffing James Baldwin, author of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Nobody knows my name” and “Giovanni’s Room,” all novels that garnered international fame – and infamy in some quarters – in the last century. Written by W. J. Weatherby, the book was published in 1989 and is essentially 400 pages of biography chronicling the incredible and often turbulent life of Baldwin.
I couldn’t put this one down folks. It is just that riveting.
So rather than suggest that you go out and find the book which may be out of print, I thought it easier to take excerpts from the flaps in the front and back to pass along a sense of who Baldwin was and the enormous impact he had on history, literature, politics and the Civil Rights movement, and flesh that out with comments of my own as I plowed through its pages. (Note that as I write this I’m up to chapter 14 with eight more to go, but wanted to write something before the Black History Month ran out on us!)
The story begins with the end of Baldwin’s life, 5000 mourners at his funeral in 1987 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the edge of Jimmy’s native Harlem. The story moves to Baldwin’s years growing up in Harlem, his days as young preacher, then explores his relationships – some fleeting, others life long, others complex, some antagonistic – with his step father, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr., and many others.
A diminutive man, “Jimmy” (as he was affectionately called) struggled with his relationship with his step father yet was sustained by a loving mother and brothers and sisters he loved so dearly.
As the story continues, his talent as a writer began to take shape in school with his well-received essays. Jimmy’s early life experience with racial strife led to his decision to leave American where he was drawn to Paris to join others, many of them writers like himself, musicians, and others who sought to escape the pressures of race in the United States. There he struggled to make ends meet by job-hopping and constantly moving and borrowing money from those he knew. As the book unfolds, Baldwin would make many trips to Paris only to return to Harlem and its realities and his personal demons. He died of cancer in Paris.
Baldwin’s ambivalent experiences with Africans while in Paris caused him to be indecisive when pressed by The New Yorker to visit “the mother country” and write an article on his observations. “My bones know that something waits for me in Africa,” he said. “That is one of the reason I dawdled so long – I’m afraid.” He eventually joined his sister Gloria, who married an African and traveled down the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Ghana. On return he said, “I have so much to learn. I want to go back and back again.”
The biography deals candidly with Baldwin’s homosexuality (“Giovanni’s Room”), his constant drinking and sometimes violent lifestyle. Although outrage at injustice and racism seep throughout much of the book, his sharp wit, humor and financial generosity to family and friends offer a softer look at Jimmy Baldwin.
Now what struck me more than anything were his acrimonious relationships with some of the best writers of the day, namely Richard Wright (who once said that, “Yes, Baldwin is a great writer, but he’s a fag.”), Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, and the tremendous influence fellow writers like Henry James and William Faulkner had on him during the early years of his writing career.
Weathby does a masterful job of painting a picture of Baldwin’s life in Greenwich Village where he weaved through the wee hours of the night in restaurants, smoke gay bars, smoke-filled jazz clubs, usually with a small entourage.
To get away from it all, Jimmy was an invited guest in cottages in Sweden, Turkey or Provincetown where he could puff on his Marlboros, sip on scotch whiskey and write without distraction. But he always returned home to New York.
Deeply curious about the South, Baldwin made many trips to Alabama and Mississippi where he befriended the Dr. King, James Meredith and Medgar Evers. His outrage at the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi led to his controversial “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” that opened as a play on Broadway in 1964. Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis seemed to impact him especially.
An intensely emotional man, Baldwin chafed under harsh criticism from his literary peers and would fire back with sharp-tongued essays that often incurred the wrath of many of the old guard. He sought to find his place somewhere between the militancy of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and the non-violent philosophy of Dr. King, and quickly became a favorite among students at colleges across the nation.
As his fame and influence grew, Hollywood-style adulation of that fame started to take its toll as evidenced by his retreats to Paris, the back streets of Greenwich Village or to guest houses of some of his well-to-do friends, leaving family and friends worried about his whereabouts and well-being.
“Artist on Fire,” provides the reader with the feel of being in the room with Baldwin, sitting next to him at DeWitt Clinton High School, laying railroad tile with him New Jersey, or sitting in a small cottage facing the ocean with him drinking scotch, debating the issues of the day, race in particular, with his expressive hands and ageless, gap-toothed grin.
James Baldwin, a man of great compassion and uncompromising honesty. And yet a man forever consumed by the trappings of his past, thin-skinned and gnawed by issues of race in the U.S.
This is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary American.
I now resume with chapter 15!…
————————————————————————————————————–Terry Howard is an award-wining diversity guru, trainer, corporate story-teller and associate with Diversity Wealth based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can he reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.