Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 July 2019
A broad, interracial circle of family, friends, and collaborators animated James Baldwin’s life and work, radically revising the contours of what we understand to be “literary friendship” in the twentieth century. His friendships with others were characterized by a deep generosity of spirit; he often lent his time, money, and boundless energy to the creative and vocational pursuits of his closest friends and was rewarded with similar demonstrations of generosity in return. For Baldwin, friendship was not simply an amicable and reciprocal bond of identification between admirers: if you were a friend of Jimmy’s, you were kin. Growing up the oldest of nine children in 1930s Depression-era Harlem, Baldwin often took care of his brothers and sisters – changing diapers, bathing and taking them on walks through the neighborhood, known by locals as the “Hollow.” Baldwin’s friendship practices therefore mirrored the patient and unending acts of love, duty, and care that were integral to his experience as an eldest brother. In his biography of Baldwin, David Leeming shares a meaningful anecdote that illustrates Baldwin’s unique vision of friendship, where in a debate with a well-known sociologist about the restrictive categorization of the term “sibling,” Baldwin clapped hands on the arms of both his brother David Baldwin and his friend David Leeming and yelled “These are my brothers; not my siblings, motherfucker!” Thus, when Amiri Baraka writes in his eulogy for James Baldwin that “As man he was Our friend, Our older or younger brother,” he does more than speak political rhetoric; he celebrates the powerful forces of adoption that were so central to Baldwin’s life and work.