Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 July 2019
In December 1962, James Baldwin’s childhood teacher, “Bill” Miller, wrote to him: “It has been a pleasure, these past few years, to learn through various publications of the position you have acquired and the role you are playing as a commentator of our political and social life. A voice striking at the conscience of our white world – No one we think is doing this as honestly, as boldly and as coherently as you.” By the end of 1962, Baldwin was on the verge of becoming a national celebrity. “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (to be published as “Down at the Cross,” the longer essay in The Fire Next Time in 1963) had just been published in The New Yorker, and it became “literally, the ‘talk of the town.’” Harlem leader Anna Arnold Hedgeman wrote, “we were glad that at last the public media had put into print every word of the beautifully written and true story of the angry, impatient, disgusted and cynical mood of the Negro.” James Baldwin was proud of the role he played in the civil rights movement, in spite of its cost. That role is key to understanding the trajectory of his writing, the vagaries of his reception, and the current revival of his work.