Vol. 1 No. 3 2008


A Biography of James Baldwin

By Herb Boyd

Reviewed By Robert Fleming

boyd baez forman

Herb Boyd’s informative, detailed account, Baldwin’s Harlem, presents the full range of the artistic and emotional terrains of James Baldwin and the uptown Manhattan area known as ‘the cultural capital of Black America.” Harlem also has a solid grip on the literary soul of writer Herb Boyd, a Detroit native, a journalist and author of many books on black themes. In his latest work, Boyd has successfully channeled Baldwin’s complex romance with the community, now a target under siege from real-estate developers and political special interests.

One of the great men of American letters, James Baldwin was a novelist, playwright and essayist. He left Harlem when he was 19, but its soulful influence served as a literary underpinning for much of his work, especially in his fiction and commentary. It was Harlem, with all of its cultural power and artistic elegance that the writer revisited repeatedly in his later works.

The son of a domestic worker and a factory employee, Baldwin identified with his mother, but took his stepfather’s name and occupation as a storefront minister. Attending P.S. 24, he knew the value of reading and books, and he thrived under the mentorship of the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who was the school’s principal. Cullen was also a teacher who instructed Baldwin in French in the ninth grade.

Boyd, like other Baldwin biographers, realizes that the author often changed his view of the neighborhood, yet he did not hesitate to get real about the economic politics of the place.

“When I grew up, we lived in what was recognized as a neighborhood,” Baldwin shared with the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead in his 1971 book, A Rap on Race” “Everybody vaguely knew everybody else…Later on, when they started tearing down the slums, as they said, and building these hideous barracks, the neighborhood disappeared. There was no longer communication between the people.” Wonder what Baldwin would say about the current state of the community?

In Baldwin’s Harlem, Boyd accurately gauges the cultural and economic rise and fall of that “uptown paradise,” from its early days of glory, to its sliding into a nadir of high crime, deteriorating housing and poor schools. The author has a superb analytical eye and writes discerningly on the historic interaction between culture, politics and black nationalism in the Harlem community.

One criticism of the book has been Boyd’s fawning approach to Baldwin’s literary achievements; yet upon close reading , there is a balanced measurement of the man’s writing and personality. But a little fawning was also warranted, because black writers, especially during the turbulent 60s, not only felt pride and admiration for Baldwin’s work on Go Tell It On The Mountain, Another Country, Notes of A Native Son, and Nobody Knows My Name, but also for the wide-spread recognition he received, including a cover on Time Magazine. When Boyd, a child of the rebellious 60s and black power, explains the solid impact of Baldwin and his mastery of words upon his youthful consciousness, this reader knows what he is talking about.

“And his blizzard of words hit me with such forces that I was often left dizzy, sometimes struggling to understand exactly what he meant. I was intoxicated by his lyrical, dazzling prose. His sentences were convoluted, layered and so filled with mind-boggling sprints of language that even when I wasn’t fully aware of what he was saying, it sounded so good, so astonishingly fresh that I would copy some of the sentences in my notebook, hoping some of his magic would rub off on me.”

The core of the book is the dissection of Baldwin and his complex relationships with the elder statesmen of black letters: Cullen, Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Sometimes he heaped praise on them, and other times he attacked them publicly and loudly. He squabbled with Martin Luther King Jr. and aligned himself with Malcolm X on several difficult social issues.

Boyd portrays himself as a wry, savvy observer, acting as a referee in Baldwin’s conflicts with Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, Stanley Crouch and Amiri Baraka. In the full chapter on Harold Cruse, he slices through the ego-filled rantings of the author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, essentially dismissing the criticisms as self-centered, self-serving and petty.

Many critics were angry at Boyd’s surface treatments of the homosexual element in Baldwin’s life and his choice comments about Jewish intellectuals, Zionism and anti-Semitism. Boyd does not dwell on these topics, for these are only segments that make up the complete Baldwin persona. Some day, a writer will dig up Baldwin’s male lovers, explain the motives for each of his encounters and dish the psychological dirt.

However, Boyd lets Baldwin speak for himself about the topic of anti-Semitism and the Jewish economic occupation of Harlem: “…hated them because they were terrible landlords, and the storekeepers because “they locked up the store for the night and went home with your money to a clean neighborhood which you were not allowed to enter.” Also, he distrusted Zionism, which he compared to Islamic fundamentalism.

Written with an objectivity that many will hate, Boyd’s Baldwin’s Harlem will anger those who would want a more scathing commentary of Baldwin’s life and work, with warts and all. Some will say Boyd is almost nonexistent as the narrator of these proceedings, but that is as it should be. This book is not about him. It’s a very noble literary experiment about a man and a place, Baldwin and Harlem, and if there are some gaps along the way, so be it. The book is a worthwhile addition to any library of African American literature, very practical and very evenhanded.

Robert Fleming is a New York based writer.

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