James Baldwin: Living in Fire

Bill V Mullen

Pluto Press, £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THE smoke was always accompanied by the fire. It would wind languorously from a cigarette held with undeniable elan between the fingers of James Baldwin as he educated Amercian television viewers on the reality of black experience in a country that seems eternally condemned to the damnation of the practice of white supremacy.

His voice was beautifully modulated, given a singular character by the ubiquitous cigarette and the regular liquor, but it carried a power that was created by the fire inside.

Baldwin was bisexual, wrote with undeniable authenticity about gay sex, was politically engaged, perennially enraged. He was, of course, black. “I read my way out of Harlem," he would once say of a childhood spent in the slums of Manhattan where his dad preached and worked menial jobs to feed children who were sentenced by the circumstance of their birth and the tone of their skin to pursue lives of desperation.

Baldwin prospered in so many ways but he never was freed from the bonds of his birth. He became a great author, one of the most important in 20th century American literature. He became an articulate and influential commentator on television, with appearances on the Dick Cavett show and others reminding the liberal white community of uncomfortable and enduring truths. He became a formidable journalist and campaigner for black and gay rights. He became, too, a posthumous film star with the release of I am Not Your Negro, the documentary on his life and times.

Born in 1927 and dying 63 years later in 1987, Baldwin remains deeply, even dramatically, relevant. This testifies to his gifts as an artist but is also a product of his character as a human being. The first biography of Baldwin in 10 years offers a welcome invitation to revisit the writer’s work. It rewards investigation. His major novels, in particular Another Country, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and If Beale Street Could Talk, provide complementary and insightful companions to Living in Fire.

Mullen’s biography both suffers from and prospers because of the author’s background and preoccupations. He is the professor of American studies at Purdue University, Indiana, and the author of W.E.B Du Bois, a biography of the first African American to win a doctorate before founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and becoming a fervent campaigner for equal rights.

Living in Fire is thus a scholarly biography. It is an examination of the ideas and beliefs of a man rather than a comprehensive view of his life. It succeeds in this limited aim. But it reeks of the academic’s office. It reads like a thesis, with regular “as we shall see in Chapter 7” or “as we discussed in Chapter 2”. This is a minor irritation and it is further leavened by Mullen’s grasp of sources and materials and his unswerving determination to discuss, examine and properly criticise Baldwin’s beliefs and campaigns.

This leads to a persuasive and illuminating critique on matters ranging from queer theory, Palestinian rights, androgyny, Christianity and capitalism, and the struggle for racial equality. This is all underpinned by Baldwin’s experience. “It is difficult to be despised,” he once wrote.

From his poor upbringing in Harlem, he was identified quickly as a talent and became an author without the benefit of extensive formal education. He found inspiration and direction in Paris after fleeing New York and its casual, highly dangerous racism. His subsequent fame and riches gave him the material comfort of a home in the South of France and a universal platform to articulate his beliefs. He was also accompanied by danger, however.

Baldwin was remarkably courageous. He could talk of the “bottomless terror” that was his birthright as a black American, but he never sought anonymity as a place of safety or embraced any prevarication or obfuscation when stating the causes and effects of the economic and racial systems of the USA and beyond. This made him a target for the FBI and white racists. He was dubbed a pervert, labelled Martin Luther Queen, criticised and threatened. He never took one step back.

“Staying alive was a basic challenge,” Baldwin once observed of life in Harlem in the 1930s but peril was his constant companion. Mullen is excellent on recounting how Baldwin would maintain a resistance to a system he believed both corrupt and evil. His message was not soft or conciliatory and was challenged crudely and with intimidation, and Mullen details a life-long adherence to what the artist believed was right, what he saw as his duty as a writer to be properly revolutionary.

However, Baldwin’s other life remains largely unexplored. At a little more than 200 pages with notes, this is a spare biography. It cries out for further context beyond the ideas and the intellect. There are casual mentions of such as Marlon Brando as a friend after both studied acting with Stella Adler but the details of their relationship are not further detailed. Baldwin was also a friend of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X but there is no intimacy in Mullen’s descriptions of what bound or distanced Baldwin from two characters at different scales of the black struggle.

A lover who died of Aids is briefly mentioned and figures such as Stokely Carmichael, the black power activist, flit across the page but they are inadequately described with their impact on Baldwin barely explored.

Baldwin described himself as an “ageing, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak”. There is humour in this but also serious truth. His personality is surely a central plank to any biography. Yet friendships are mostly described in relation to political crises or controversies over race or sexuality.

Baldwin was brilliantly prescient and brutally frank. He saw through Ronald Reagan, who was portrayed by apologists as a genial uncle as president, but has now been confirmed as a racist of the worst sort with the release of tapes of conversations with Richard Nixon. Baldwin, too, was unsentimental and frank when the USA indulged in hand-wringing over the assassination of John F Kennedy. He noted that his peers, friends and neighbours had been dying violently for generations.

“The violence was being perpetrated mainly against black men…so it didn’t count,” he wrote of the contrast in reactions. This was Baldwin at his best, using the intellect in tandem with the pointed phrase.

But what was his value as a friend? Was he generous, did he need or seek consolation? How did he endure? How did he overcome the depressions that plagued him and the doubts and accusations he faced daily? How human was he? The answers to many of these questions can be found in his novels or his essays. Baldwin was intensely vulnerable, regularly fragile and eternally inspirational. He is a beacon now for the Black Lives Matter movement and a compass for those who seek to find an understanding of what was done to the oppressed in the name of racism and what continues to be committed today.

In short, he still lives. But not just in the matter of ideas and theory but as a human being who stumbled sometimes, struggled almost always but shone brilliantly often enough to illuminate both the beauty and the evil of the world. It is impossible to read him, it is impossible to look at him on TV clip or photograph, and not appreciate that the fire was not just in his intellect but in his very being.

It consumed him. He was, in truth, another casualty of the evil that finds an awful, enduring presence in shopping malls and workplaces that reek of cordite produced by gun-toting white supremacists and in the hate spread from the very peak of politics.