Vol. 1 No. 3 2008


Conversation With Herb Boyd

By Peniel E. Joseph

I had the pleasure of conducting this interview with Herb Boyd about his latest book Baldwin’s Harlem. Having written the book’s preface, I can attest to the fact that this is one of the most important books produced to date on Baldwin. In many ways Boyd’s extensive experience as an author, journalist, and political activist makes him uniquely suited to telling this story.

Peniel Joseph: Why did you decide to write Baldwin's Harlem?

Herb Boyd:As I point out in the book’s Preface, this was not my idea. More than half of the eighteen books I’ve written have been the ideas of others. And they have been very good ideas that I’ve been blessed to complete, apparently satisfying what they originally envisioned. I guess if I had it my way I’d be writing screenplays and novels, but I’ve settled quite comfortably in the land of nonfiction and when literary agent Jim Fitzgerald approached me with the idea (we had worked together on Pound for Pound—The life of Sugar Ray Robinson), I leaped on it because Baldwin’s books—especially the paperback editions—were the ones I stuffed into my back pocket as a teenager to read whenever I got a chance. The idea to focus the book on Baldwin in Harlem was mine since I had to find an angle on his life that had not been chewed juiceless.

After rereading the bios, I discovered that Baldwin’s Harlem period wasn’t given a lot of attention, so I decided that it might be worth pursuing that point of view. What finally convinced me that focus on Baldwin’s experience in Harlem was a good idea was the completion of the chapter in my book that I call “Harlem—Real and Imagined.” I plowed through his literature to see just how he had treated Harlem in his fiction and his nonfiction. Baldwin was both repelled and fascinated by his hometown and only toward the end of his life, particularly in Just Above My Head, was there an extensive look at the community and what it had meant to him.

PJ: Discuss Jimmy Baldwin's special relationship to Harlem?

HB: First of all, he was born in Harlem, and I take some time with the events surrounding his birth in 1924. Most of the opening chapter is devoted to his early years, and being one of nine children, you can imagine the kind of struggle they had surviving on their father’s meager income. Nonetheless, Baldwin was an enterprising young man and with his brothers took to the streets to earn money to assist their parents.

Despite the terrible environment, Baldwin managed to find those niches and sinecures of comfort and inspiration. He was exceptionally bright, at least in most subjects, and this brilliance was like a magnet, attracting a cadre of teachers and mentors to rescue him, and to nourish his inquisitiveness. Very early in his life he accepted the circumstances that surrounded him and then sought ways to transcend them, or, to navigate them safely from dawn to sunset.

Throughout his life, I detected a kind of ambivalence, what psychologists might call an approach/avoidance, love/hate relationship. But even after he was able to migrate permanently from Harlem, far too much of it went with him, and this baggage, you might say, is what he grappled with, sometimes imaginatively and sometimes disdainfully.

PJ: Why does Baldwin's story still matter for a contemporary generation?

HB: Baldwin was a witness, not just an ordinary one, but one gifted with a talent to relate what he had witnessed—in the most compelling and eloquent language—and there was something special about his vision, his prophecy. To be blessed with such a mission and the means to fulfill it makes him an exceedingly valuable communicator, no matter what generation discovers his messages. Because he spoke so honestly and passionately to his times—and about the human condition—his words are timeless, and they have universal significance and implications.

And Baldwin was a witness who suffered. Much of his personal and social burden was of his own choosing. He was a saint, who knew he was also a sinner, and he like, all of our great artists, possessed a heavy spirit, one that spoke to us on registers we’re still trying to comprehend. One unmistakable and inescapable fact about Baldwin was his ability with words. He was a great writer in the sense that Balzac, Dickens, Twain, and Toni Morrison were and are—and that alone gives him an eternal presence in our world.

PJ: Baldwin was an active supporter of both civil rights and Black Power, but many remain unaware of his enthusiastic assistance of the era's militants. Why did Baldwin defend the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis?

HB: To defend the underdog, those bereft of hope and possibility, those who suffer the outrageous misfortunes of racism and white supremacy, and sexual and political aggression were candidates for his mercy and support. Baldwin once wrote that to be a black person in America is to be perpetually in rage. His was a furious passage and he recognized and identified with all the other wretched of the earth. So, in effect, he was not so much coming to the aid of the others in flight or under the gun, he was fighting for his own life, his own salvation. And this salvation was inextricably linked to those he championed, whether in the civil rights movement or Black Power, or the struggle for total liberation, here and abroad.

His mantle of protection extended beyond the militants in America—and he did this at great sacrifice—to the downtrodden of the world, the salt of the earth were deserving of his care and compassion.

PJ: Can you sum up Baldwin's political, social, and literary impact on American society and the larger world? Is this impact continuing to be felt?

HB: There is one certainty about Baldwin, his books will always be in print, at least those that have resonated for readers around the globe—The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, Nobody Knows My Name, and Blues for Mr. Charlie. Recently, I’ve attended several events in which one of his works has been produced or discussed, or they have provoked seminars, conferences, and other special occasions. He has been adopted by just about every alternative community you can name. Even the hip hop culture is mining his works and just the other day in Compton, California, Sen. Hillary Clinton quoted him—“Those who say it can’t be done usually interrupt those who are doing it!” Baldwin was a thorn in the side, ever pricking (and I use that word advisedly) America’s conscience, holding up his all-seeing artistic vision to make this nation face its contradictions, to deal with a hypocrisy that has devastated so many dreamers.

Baldwin, at last, was a prophet, and like Dr. King and Malcolm X, he understood his mission, and never wavered from speaking truth to power. “I want to be a great writer,” he once wished, and indeed he was—and is.

Peniel E. Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University and author of Waiting Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Henry Holt and Company, 2006) and editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era, (Routledge, 2006) interviewed Herb Boyd, Neworld Senior Editor and veteran author, about his latest book, Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin, (Atria, January 2008).

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