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The Revolutionary Life of James Baldwin

Writer and activist James Baldwin was born on this day in 1924 – and spent his life fighting the interconnected injustices of racism, imperialism, homophobia, and capitalism.

Credit: Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

‘I’m optimistic about the future, but not about the future of this civilization.  I’m optimistic about the civilization which will replace this one.’ – James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born 2 August 1924 into the raging inferno of Black America. He has become since that time, deservedly, a global icon in the fight against racism: hailed as one of the greatest writers of his era; a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; and during the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, a social media touchstone for the enduring struggle for Black freedom.

But Baldwin was more than that: he was also one of the most important political revolutionaries of the twentieth century. From the time of his childhood in Harlem to the end of his life in 1987, Baldwin regularly read, absorbed, and transformed the major currents of revolutionary thought and action available to him. These included the influence of Socialism and Communism; anarchism and feminism; anti-imperialism; anti-capitalism; queer liberation. These were some of the stepping stones in Baldwin’s evolution into one of the most adroit but underappreciated dialectical Black thinkers produced by the modern world.

Baldwin acknowledged his place in the Black working class from the earliest days of his life. His father worked at a bottling plant, facing low wages and crippling racism. His mother was a domestic worker who raised nine children. Baldwin never attended college, because he could not afford it; instead, he worked in construction and meatpacking after graduating high school. One person who helped give political shape to his thoughts about growing up poor in America was Orilla ‘Bill’ Miller, his white elementary school teacher. Miller was a Communist, and in 1935, her husband took Baldwin to a May Day parade sponsored by the Communist Party.

Baldwin never joined the CP—he later described himself as a ‘committed fellow traveller’—but spent the 1940s, the period of his teenage years, around the American Left. In 1941 he was a student in a writers’ workshop on the short story taught by the Communist Mary Elting at the Writers’ School of the League of American Writers. The League was an association of poets, novelists, journalists, and literary critics formed by the Communist Party in 1935. The following year, Baldwin was one of twenty young writers awarded a scholarship by the League, as reported in the 19 January 1942 Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party.

Around the age of nineteen, Baldwin met Eugene Worth. Worth was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, and urged Baldwin to join. By Baldwin’s account he did, sometime around 1943. The YPSL had been formed by the Workers Party, a Trotskyist group.

In his two most revealing comments about his political orientation in this period, he wrote that Worth ‘urged me to join, and I did. I then outdistanced him by becoming a Trotskyite – so that I was in the interesting position (at the age of nineteen) of being an anti-Stalinist when America and Russia were allied.’ Later, in a letter to Orilla Miller written when he was thirty-one in 1955, Baldwin wrote of this period, ‘After my father died, I bounced around in the classic bohemian fashion, messed around in politics – made it all the way from the Stalinists to the Anarchists in what I think must be record time.’

More evidence of Baldwin’s contact with the Workers Party comes in the reminiscences of labour activist and Workers Party member Stan Weir. Weir recalls meeting Baldwin when he was eighteen years old and working at the Calypso, a restaurant and nightclub on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. They boarded together after Weir was hired as a dishwasher.

By his own account, Weir tried recruiting Baldwin to the Workers Party, but was rebuffed because Party members were slow to recognise his homosexuality: ‘It took you months to become fully aware that I develop relationships that include what is sexual with men. You had known it, and did not know it, because you had buried it. Yes, homosexual is a hard word to accept.’ Finally in this period Baldwin flirted with anarchism, likely attending a meeting of a New York City group where he read an excerpt from his first novel-in-progress, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Baldwin carried the anti-capitalist and internationalist spirit of the Left with him to Paris where he went into involuntary exile from the US in 1948. Paris exposed him to the lives of colonised Algerians and the Algerian independence movement, the next step in his political radicalisation. Baldwin was arrested and jailed in Paris in 1955, falsely accused of stealing a bed sheet. Seeing jail cells full of dark-skinned North Africans, in combination with signs on Paris streets of the new Algerian war for independence, alerted Baldwin to the larger role of Western imperialism and his place in it as man of colour.

In his political masterpiece No Name in the Street, a retrospective account of his political development in the 1950s and 1960s, Baldwin linked his opposition to the American War against Vietnam to the beginnings of Algerian resistance to French colonial rule: ‘The Arabs,’ Baldwin writes, ‘were not a part of Indo-China, but they were part of an empire visibly and swiftly crumbling, and part of a history which was achieving, in the most literal and frightening sense, its denouement—.’

Baldwin’s anti-imperialism was also shaped by close contact and affiliation with the American Black Panther Party in the 1960s. He met and befriended Panther leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, attended fundraisers for the Panthers, wrote articles, and gave speeches in the US and Europe denouncing America’s police. ‘They are present,’ he famously wrote in 1966, ‘to keep the Negro in his place and protect white business interests and they have no other function.’

At the same time, Baldwin adopted the Panther position that Israel was a colonial regime, and Palestinians a colonised people, urging Black Americans to stand with Arab liberation struggles just as they did African decolonisation movements. Baldwin’s anticolonialism was also shaped by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, which Baldwin helped introduce to a wide audience in his incendiary manifesto The Fire Next Time. He militated against the political imprisonment of American Communist Angela Davis, too, famously defending her in a 1971 public letter condemning American capitalism and racism:

We know that we, the blacks, and not only we, the blacks, have been, and are, the victims of a system whose only fuel is greed, whose only god is profit. We know that the fruits of this system have been ignorance, despair, and death, and we know that the system is doomed because the world can no longer afford it—if, indeed, it ever could have. And we know that, for the perpetuation of this system, we have all been mercilessly brutalized, and have been told nothing but lies, lies about ourselves and our kinsmen and our past, and about love, life, and death, so that both soul and body have been bound in hell.

The enormous revolution in black consciousness which has occurred in your generation, my dear sister, means the beginning or the end of America.

Finally, Baldwin was a sexual revolutionary. His fiercely queer 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, written at the height of the Cold War and Pink Scare, is a landmark in the history of LGBTQ literature. In the 1960s, Baldwin spoke openly and publicly about the tyranny of heteronormative life in America. In response, the FBI created a 1,884 page dossier on Baldwin, annotated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who wrote, ‘Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?’ in its margins. In the 1970s, Baldwin discussed gender oppression with leading Black feminist poet Nikki Giovanni; in the 1980s, he supported Black lesbian writers like Audre Lorde. His last, unfinished play, The Welcome Table, includes a reference to the HIV pandemic that claimed one of his lovers.

At Baldwin’s funeral at St. John the Divine Church in 1987, poet Amiri Baraka eulogised him as ‘God’s Revolutionary Black Mouth’. We can likewise recall Baldwin as among the most radical of twentieth-century African American writers: a man who openly defied the state, Western empires, the tyranny of sexual norms, the brutalities of capitalism. Indeed, the epigraph with which I began this piece shows Baldwin to be that most essential and rare of thinkers and activists: a relentless optimist of the will, with the capacity to ruthlessly criticise everything unjust.