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The rise in prison populations in the 1980s coupled with the silencing of the voices of those in prison compromised the visibility of some Black writers. Writers who were not incarcerated began to write about the prison experience, especially in terms of its effect on families. Although that trend can be seen earlier and later, the neoconservative 1980s catalyzed the need for a new approach to Black prison writing that would enable prisoners’ stories to be told by family members. At the vanguard of that movement is John Edgar Wideman whose willingness to tell the story of his incarcerated brother changed the trajectory of contemporary African American literature and its intersection with prison writing. This chapter utilizes the lens of Michel Foucault’s concept of the carceral archipelago in order to advance a broader literary/cultural critique. Foucault enables us to extend Wideman’s inquiry outward from prison into a series of institutions designed to preserve and promote the idea of racial hierarchy despite mythological national claims of opportunity, democracy, equality, and equal justice for all well after the abolition of slavery and the end of legal segregation.
The 1980s was a decade in which African American literary production was starting to get the long overdue attention it deserved, but also a decade in which African American artists were emboldened to explore new territory, mainstream recognition be damned. The juxtaposition of James Baldwin’s funeral in 1987 and Trey Ellis’s essay “The New Black Aesthetic” in 1989 represent not a mere passing of the torch from the old guard to the avant-garde. Rather, the old guard was flourishing, and younger artists were also getting attention on new frontiers. In an unprecedented way, the 1980s marked an era when Black writers were sought out and recognized, to the point that their work dominated the critical conversation. This was especially true of Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Rita Dove who enjoyed a readership unlike anything they had ever seen before.
African American Literature in Transition, 1980–1990 tracks Black expressive culture in the 1980s as novelists, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, and performers grappled with the contradictory legacies of the civil rights era, and the start of culture wars and policy machinations that would come to characterize the 1990s. The volume is necessarily interdisciplinary and critically promiscuous in its methodologies and objects of study as it reconsiders conventional temporal, spatial, and moral understandings of how African American letters emerged immediately after the movement James Baldwin describes as the 'latest slave rebellion.' As such, the question of the state of America's democratic project as refracted through the literature of the shaping presence of African Americans is one of the guiding concerns of this volume preoccupied with a moment in American literary history still burdened by the legacies of the 1960s, while imagining the contours of an African Americanist future in the new millennium.
In 2015, Toni Morrison declared, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual voice that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” With the blurb emblazoned on Between the World and Me, Coates’ break-out meditation on black life in America that adopted the form of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from two generations prior, Morrison not only anointed the next generation of black public intellectuals, she also affirmed the cultural importance of the essay form. Baldwin is among the most prolific writers of the later twentieth century and his oeuvre is noteworthy for the variety of genres and formats in which he worked over the course of his career, from novels, short stories, poetry, and stage plays to published dialogues, an unfilmed screenplay, an illustrated children’s book, a collaborative photo-essay, and more. Baldwin’s essays are where he most directly engaged the political debates and social movements of his time and they continue to fuel his current prominence for a Black Lives Matter generation. In fact, much of Baldwin’s political legacy lies in his innovations in the essay form and his related status as political spokesman.
James Baldwin was ahead of his time when it came to questions of the intersection of sexuality, progressive global politics, and critical race theory. His essays, novels, and plays always expressed a profound hope that humankind can learn to love the other. Such a hope kept him in an ongoing battle against injustices in all their dissimilar forms – Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, and racial hate crimes. This essay considers the intersectional elements of antiracist, antinationalist, and antiheterosexist thought in James Baldwin’s literary work and lectures. I have organized my thoughts in several sections that focus on the African American community in the United States, international affairs, and his reflections on sexuality and gender/masculinity.
Baldwin’s most fertile period – the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s – corresponded with the advent of the confessional school of poetry, a deeply personal and emotionally intense mode inaugurated with the publication of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1960). Yet Baldwin is more frequently associated with social commentary than with personal confession. Malcolm X once said to Baldwin, “I’m the warrior of this revolution and you’re the poet.” The distinction might be false: poetry, even of the confessional type, can be considered as politically efficacious as any speech. Put succinctly, poets can be warriors, too.
Between his birth in Harlem and his death in St.-Paul-de-Vence, Baldwin lived for varying amounts of time all over the world, yet many readers associate him with his first site of expatriation even though it was not his longest stay or his favorite place. In a 1970 interview Baldwin said, “I didn’t come to Paris in , I simply left America. I would have gone to Tokyo, I would have gone to Israel, I would have gone anywhere. I was getting out of America.” Baldwin is speaking rhetorically here, claiming he wasn’t drawn to Paris so much as he was repelled by the United States, but it should be acknowledged that Paris was not a random choice for an American writer seeking an expatriate experience in the mid-twentieth century. When Baldwin went there just after World War II, Paris was America’s most important literary city.
“One writes out of one thing only: one’s own experience.” This pronouncement, from Baldwin’s “Autobiographical Notes” (1955), told his early readers what they already knew: that his work was closely aligned with his life. That conclusion may be too simplistic in Baldwin’s case, though. His life, like his writing, was surprising, difficult to grasp, not always coherent (in the traditional sense of the word), and far from straightforward. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was a bildungsroman (albeit an unconventional one that ranged far into the imagined lives of the protagonist’s parents and aunt) and his most memorable essays from his first collection – “Notes of a Native Son” (1955) and “Stranger in the Village” (1953) – filled in crucial details from the author’s life. Although later novels and short stories were about characters who were clearly not Baldwin – a bisexual white man from a privileged background, a pregnant teen girl, a racist white southern sheriff, a heroin-using jazz pianist – and although his essays were sometimes more journalistic than confessional, Baldwin’s own life (including his imagination and his observation, not just his experiences) was often his subject, and his readers responded favorably when he shared his life’s details. At the same time, he was sometimes coy about the way he engaged his life in his work. Even the word “one” in the quotation above – a recurrent pronoun in his early essays – demonstrates his occasional reluctance to reveal himself in full. Baldwin revealed himself in glimpses only. He left it to others to tell his entire story.
James Baldwin is one of the most fascinating American literary figures of the mid-twentieth century. He is also one of the most important. Many lasting impressions derive as much from his public persona as from his published work. He could easily be described as mercurial, a gifted speaker given to rants and tirades who would lean into arguments with a mixture of ferocity and righteous indignation, delivered with passion and unparalleled eloquence. He was also deeply vulnerable, a wounded man prone to confession who exposed his wounds without flinching. The latter observation comes more from examining his texts – all of them, even the ones that baffled or displeased critics and readers – than from observing his public persona. The tension in Baldwin between the public spokesman and the private craftsman is just one of many tensions that help the contemporary reader appreciate his rich complexity.
Harlem, like the proverbial nine blind men grasping different parts of an elephant’s anatomy, can be many things, depending how in touch you are with the community and its history. Residents who have lived there for years know that Harlem is more than a state of mind, as many writers have concluded. It is for them a very real and tangible enclave in New York City replete with a glorious past and a promising future. To journey along the arc of James Baldwin’s life is to experience a large chunk of Harlem’s history from the 1920s to the 1990s, and except for the community’s Gilded Age in the 1880s and 1890s, his years in the neighborhood are perhaps the most interesting and instructive.
James Baldwin in Context provides a wide-ranging collection of approaches to the work of an essential black American author who is just as relevant now as he was during his turbulent heyday in the mid-twentieth century. The perspectives range from those who knew Baldwin personally, to scholars who have dedicated decades to studying him, to a new generation of scholars for whom Baldwin is nearly a historical figure. This collection complements the ever-growing body of scholarship on Baldwin by combining traditional inroads into his work, such as music and expatriation, with new approaches, such as intersectionality and the Black Lives Matter movement.