Literary Hub

Why James Baldwin Went to the South and What It Meant to Him

i.  the illusion of a mirror / the mirror of an illusion

In the fall of 1957, James Baldwin made his first trip to the Deep South. In complex ways and for even more complex reasons, he was returning to a place he’d never been before. Soon upon his arrival, he found himself surrounded by mirrors. “Everywhere he turns,” wrote Baldwin in “Letter from the South: Nobody Knows My Name,” “the revenant finds himself reflected.” For the readers of the Partisan Review, he recalled his first impressions: a northern Black man arriving in the South “sees, in effect, his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable identity.”

Possibly because Baldwin arrived in the South after a prolonged sojourn in Europe, and possibly because his vision was calibrated to framing redemptive confrontations, he continued: “And the Northern Negro in the South sees, whatever he or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both white and black. The white men, flesh of his flesh, hate him for that very reason.” Completing the scan of his new environment in a way that forecast a strange, maybe perilous, trip through what for him would be a kind of no man’s land, Baldwin wrote: “On the other hand, there is scarcely any way for him to join the black community in the South: for both he and this community are in the grip of the immense illusion that their state is more miserable than his own.”

In ways beyond what Baldwin could tell himself at the time, certainly in ways beyond what he could confide to a determined and isolated 17-year-old Black boy integrating Central High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, to say nothing of what he could relate to the rather carefully terrified white principal of the school, Baldwin had been led back to the United States, and to the South for the first time, by a near-lethal misery that had closed in upon him over the past year or so. Over the course of his career, Baldwin would write plenty about misery, and he’d publish many pieces about his first and many subsequent trips to the South. He’d decode many fantasies Americans hold about one another and themselves, all of them, as he’d write in “Letter from the South,” owing “everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people.”

Still, even during the fall of 2017, on the 60th anniversary of Baldwin’s first trip to the South, key silences remain about why he went, what he felt, and what he saw, silences held in place by illusions of the 1950s, as well as by other illusions that continue into the 21st century. Recently, a tenacious mix of American silence and illusion has been revealing itself, again, to be as dangerous—inevitably as murderous—as Baldwin felt it to be throughout his career.

In the face of all of this, a few details of Baldwin’s experience and his work from those years become fascinating to consider. Not the least fascinating are the silence-breaking and possibly mirror-shattering letters he wrote to family and friends from North Carolina and Alabama in October 1957. From examining Baldwin’s attempts to make sense of how the personal and historical dimensions of his experience come together, we can glimpse moments of clarity about our contemporary lives and world and what, as he put it, “prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be.”

ii.  “history, jeering, at her back”

Rapt theatre audiences in 2016 encountered moments of Baldwin’s life, including elements of his first trip to the South, via the affecting voice of Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words in Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro. In one such moment, Jackson reads from Baldwin’s inimitable and still little-understood 1972 memoir, No Name in the Street. As he speaks, Jackson revivifies a most interestingly mistaken memory of Baldwin’s. Baldwin recalls correctly that, in “the fall of 1956,” he covered the First International Conference of Negro Writers and Artists for Encounter magazine. The conference was held at the Sorbonne from Wednesday, September 19, through Saturday, September 22. Baldwin’s article describing the conference, “Princes and Powers,” would be published by Encounter in its January issue in 1957.

But the searing memory from the historic conference that September week in Paris 1956 that Baldwin recounts in No Name in the Street, and again in I Am Not Your Negro, couldn’t have happened. He wrote:

One bright afternoon, several of us, including the late Richard Wright, were meandering up the Boulevard St.-Germain, on the way to lunch. . . . Facing us, on every newspaper kiosk on that wide, tree-shaded boulevard, were photographs of 15-year-old Dorothy Counts being reviled and spat upon by the mob as she was making her way to school in Charlotte, North Carolina . . . with history, jeering, at her back.

The trouble is that Dorothy Counts and three other Black students (Gus Roberts, Girvaud Roberts, and Delois Huntley) all entered their different, previously all-white schools in Charlotte in September 1957. The photo of Dorothy Counts that Baldwin remembers striking him so powerfully in Paris in 1956 was taken on September 4, 1957. By that time, Baldwin was already in New York. He would embark on his first trip to the South five days later. Before Baldwin arrived in Charlotte a few weeks after that, Counts’s father would already have withdrawn her from Harding High School. Writing in No Name in the Street, likely in 1970 or 1971, Baldwin—then living in St. Paul de Vence in the South of France and recalling events across the violent tumult of the 1960s—remembers the moment vividly nonetheless.

The photo made me furious, it filled me with both hatred and pity, and it made me ashamed. Some one of us should have been there with her! I dawdled in Europe for nearly yet another year, held by my private life and my attempt to finish a novel, but it was on that bright afternoon that I knew I was leaving France. I could, simply, no longer sit around in Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem. Everybody else was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.

In fact, Baldwin’s recollection is full of accuracies that revolve around the impossible cue for the memory itself. Baldwin did remain in Europe after the Paris conference, “held by [his] private life” and so on. But the key here is Baldwin’s notion that he “could, simply, no longer . . . ” In fact, there was almost nothing simple about Baldwin’s position in Europe, less so in his move to return to the United States and go on a tour of the South and the nascent—but also ages-old—revolution coming to the surface at the time. One can’t call Baldwin’s move a decision because there was really no basis upon which to make it.

Baldwin knew he was leaving France, but it wasn’t the photo of 15-year-old Counts that had prompted this knowledge; the cause was diffuse, a shadowy and painful gauze. No wonder Baldwin’s mind seized upon that photo and credited it in hindsight as the cause of a decision—likely as much a desperate leap as it was a decision—that occurred a year before the photo was taken.

“There was almost nothing simple about Baldwin’s position in Europe, less so in his move to return to the United States and go on a tour of the South.”

By 1972, when No Name in the Street came out, Baldwin was attempting to describe an almost impossibly complex mesh of personal and political fears and commitments, motivations, and desires, which, in 1956, he hadn’t had a vocabulary to describe. Even in 1972, reviewers failed to interpret the book. Most were confused by what they saw as Baldwin’s refusal to acknowledge the great progress made over the preceding decade, a period Baldwin recalled as a slaughter covering a profound national moral abdication. The other main point of the reviews was a truly simple-minded matter. Baldwin had mistaken a quotation by E. M. Forster for one by Henry James. Reviewers fixated upon the error as if to cover their confusion by clutching at least one fact they could verify with certainty. So much for trivia.

In truth, in 1956, Baldwin felt himself gripped by a pain he had no word for, one that seemed to contradict all he’d assumed about an artist’s struggle for success and much of what he thought he’d known about how to be a person. No, Baldwin’s return to the United States during the summer of 1957 and his three-week tour there in October of that year were many things, but they were most certainly not so he “could, simply” do, or “no longer” do, anything at all.

The keys to the complexity of Baldwin’s position circa 1956–57, and to the relationship between politics and the creative imagination, between the public and personal life, lie in the details. These details exist, at times masked even to their author, in Baldwin’s published work from the era, as well as in incredible letters he wrote to family and friends from the South during October 1957. In order to explore this complexity, we must peel the photo of Dorothy Counts from its place masking the details. But first, to establish a paradigm of sorts, we’ll look at a previous instance where the simple causes and motivations Baldwin recalls mask complexly resonant details of experience in conflict with history.

iii.  “I could, simply, no longer . . .”

We can no longer afford to assume the simplicity of things. By the fall of 1956, living with the support of a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award and a Partisan Review fellowship, which together totaled $4,000, Baldwin awaited the release of his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which he’d been compelled to write against the advice of his agent and publishers. Like leaving France, writing Giovanni’s Room was no simple choice. Baldwin tended, as he often put it, to fly by radar, which meant steering with his gut, guided as much by intuition as reason.

As is the case with the memory of 1956 in No Name in the Street, most of Baldwin’s comments about writing Giovanni’s Room came long after the fact. By turns his answers are either deeply reflective or rather simply put. Never, however, do they invoke the details of Baldwin’s complex negotiation of private and public, of personal and political, life at the time. In a 1984 interview for the Village Voice, for instance, Richard Goldstein asked Baldwin about writing Giovanni’s Room and not masking the homoerotic life of the characters. The reflective Baldwin answers brilliantly.

RG: And that decision alone must have been enormously risky.

JB: Yeah. The alternative was worse.

RG: What would that have been?

JB: If I hadn’t written that book I would probably have had to stop writing altogether.

RG: It was that serious.

JB: It is that serious. The question of human affection, of integrity, in my case, the question of trying to become a writer, are all linked with the question of sexuality. Sexuality is only part of it. I don’t know even if it’s the most important part. But, it’s indispensable.

This is all true and deeply interesting, more interesting, in fact, than Goldstein really knew what to do with in the mid-1980s. Goldstein was looking for Baldwin to wave the flag of Gay Liberation in a brave and defiant act cast backward into history. Baldwin doesn’t give him that. Nor does he describe his own apprehension of things in the mid-50s when he was a furiously ambitious writer in his early thirties, a writer who wasn’t unknown but who aimed at a far greater level of visibility: namely, fame.

Another interview gets to that issue, again in retrospect and rather too simply. In Black Queer Studies, Dwight McBride quotes an interview that appears as part of Karen Thorsen’s 1989 documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. McBride records:

when asked to reflect on why he chose so early on to write about his sexuality (in Giovanni’s Room) given that he was dealing with the burden of being a black writer in America, Baldwin stated: “Well, one could say almost that I did not have an awful lot of choice. Giovanni’s Room comes out of something that tormented and frightened me—the question of my own sexuality. It also simplified my life in another way because it meant that I had no secrets, nobody could blackmail me. You know . . . you didn’t tell me, I told you.”

Again in distant hindsight, Baldwin describes writing Giovanni’s Room as a choice made of not having a choice, one rooted in the role an artist’s personal life plays in their work, as well as a bold, tactical decision for a Black writer with an already contested position in the culture. In a way, Baldwin is saying that there’s no way to be a great artist while denying elements of one’s personal life. And there’s no way to be a famous writer while harboring secrets either. As it happened, Baldwin hadn’t come upon the second realization by himself at all. The world forced him into it in a very specific and terrifying way in an event one imagines to be at the crux of why Giovanni’s Room appeared when it did and in the form it did. Life, it seemed, in no ways simply, reared up and delivered Baldwin an ultimatum. It wasn’t exactly blackmail, but it was close.

In late 1953 and into the first days of 1954, Baldwin had been in residence at the MacDowell Colony, an artist’s retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He’d been working on his first play, The Amen Corner, and planning projects, including a novel, that would involve a three-month research trip to the South. This would be a novel he’d never write, a research trip he’d never take. As MacDowell records show, Baldwin left New Hampshire in the first few days of January 1954. He returned to New York. Soon after that he wrote his friend Mary Painter, then living in Paris, detailing his arrest for disorderly conduct on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Baldwin had been at a party hosted by George Solomos, then writing and publishing Zero magazine under the pen name Themistocles Hoetis. Almost four years before, in Paris, Solomos/ Hoetis had published one of Baldwin’s most widely read essays, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in the magazine’s first issue. It was his first big hit.

“In a way, Baldwin is saying that there’s no way to be a great artist while denying elements of one’s personal life.”

Baldwin told Painter that, as usual, he’d been the last one at the party and that, sometime after 2 a.m., he and Themistocles had gone down Third Avenue in search of a nightcap. On the street, they encountered three younger men. Baldwin thought they were students. One of them carried a lantern such as may have been on a restaurant table. Assuming he’d stolen it, Baldwin, in a way that echoes with double entendre, inquired as to how the young man kept his lantern lit. After a few moments, a police car appeared. Baldwin called it a “prowl car.” Police lined them all up against the wall and took them to jail for the night.

In his 2010 obituary of Solomos for the Guardian, James Campbell noted the incident and quoted Solomos: “‘Jimmy screamed all night long,’ George told me with a disdainful look. ‘I said, cool it, Jimmy.’”

The glimpse of Baldwin’s terror matches well enough the version he told to Painter in his letter. Baldwin always claimed he’d left New York in 1948 for fear he couldn’t survive there. That danger hadn’t gone away. It met him when he returned. He told Painter he’d have to leave the city again, and as soon as possible, or die. His work was suffering and his personality—evinced in his malfunctioning face muscles—was freezing up under the suffocating pressures he felt in the city.

Compounding the paralyzing effects of being in New York, the arrest angered him. He’d gone to the American Civil Liberties Union and obtained a lawyer. He claimed that he’d been convicted and given a suspended sentence without having been brought to court and charged. Likely he suspected, and quite plausibly, that the whole ordeal had been a kind of unofficial harassment by police. Baldwin, Solomos, and the students had been profiled. The lawyers and the judge, he felt, having rather more in common with each other than they had with him, were in league to mop up the procedural error or cover up the extralegal abuse. Or both. Above all, Baldwin bemoaned the time and pain and confusion it was costing him.

He wrote to Painter that it would have all been much faster and easier if he’d simply gone to the newspapers as he’d started to do in the first place. He assumed that people like the judge and the lawyers hated publicity. Then, in a statement that would raise eyebrows for anyone familiar with Baldwin, he said he hated publicity too. Even then, Baldwin could see very clearly that hating publicity was a serious liability for a little-known writer who wants—in a way, needs—to be famous.

Much later, in 1984, asked about his fame, Baldwin told Julius Lester, “I would’ve had to become a celebrity in order to survive. A boy like me . . . could not have survived in obscurity.” In his letter, he told Painter that while no one’s real life could stand the moral scrutiny of the American public, his real life was even more vulnerable. Impossibly so, it seemed to him. And, he wrote, he particularly couldn’t afford the publicity in New York, so close to home, especially so close to his mother, who harbored blurry fears for her eldest son and his unspecified but certainly unorthodox life. He hadn’t even told his mother he’d been arrested.

Clearly, Baldwin’s ambivalent reliance on the shadows that he describes to his friend couldn’t last. And, in ways that his later comments obscure (“You didn’t tell me . . . I told you”), other letters make it clear it wasn’t only in the eyes of the public and his family that Baldwin kept to the shadows. Through the rest of the 1950s, Baldwin’s private correspondence contains many instances where he poses before himself as an “everyday” man—patriarchal, at least potentially heterosexual, a potential husband, father—and also as an “everyday” artist of the time, one who just wants to be left alone. The reality of Baldwin’s life and the real, political nature of his artistic ambition would clash with accepted roles in all kinds of ways throughout his career. The conflicts in 1956 and 1957 were particularly intense, complex, and dangerous.

No epiphany or conversation could resolve these conflicts. The process would take decades. All the way up through late 1962, through writing The Fire Next Time, in fact, Baldwin still at least publicly adhered to the myth that a writer’s real work was to deal with people’s personal issues. And he was supposed to do it alone. In “A Word from Writer Directly to Reader” (1959), he wrote that the “private life, his own and that of others, is the writer’s subject.” In July 1961, he told Studs Terkel that his responsibility to readers was “to try to tell the truth as I see it—not so much about my private life as about their private lives.”

In The Fire Next Time, he felt unable to contend with the social relevance of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s movement because his own views always boiled down to “a personal, a private” matter. To which, as if it followed as a matter of course, he added, “(I was, after all, a writer).” When pressed by Muhammad about his social identity, Baldwin, addressing a split in himself he couldn’t focus, faltered, “‘I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.’”

The famous writer and the private person would, at some point, have to enter the same frame. This would alter Baldwin’s profile in history, as acted out in public forums. It would also change his private life. The literary writer for whom reality was, at bottom, “a personal, a private” matter would have to connect to the pieces of reality that were beyond the personal life, that were unavoidably social and political, soon enough radically, and violently, so. Unthinkable as it was at the time, the real cue to reorient his creative labour—and change his life—came in a Baptist church on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, on Sunday, October 13, 1957. But, that’s getting ahead.



This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Brick.

Related Interests

More from Literary Hub

Literary Hub4 min readTech
Dealing With ‘Friendship Overload’ In The Age Of Social Media
You know the feeling. You’ve barely responded to one message when another comes in. Then two more. Your phone is buzzing as if possessed, your unread message count is soaring—and you haven’t even opened your work email. Most of us have experienced di
Literary Hub9 min read
John F. Callahan on Ralph Ellison’s Two Inviolable Identities
When I talked to Ralph Ellison, he’d often shake his head and say, “Well, John, it’s a crazy country.” There’s no question he had more on his mind than the shape-shifting abstraction and chaotic bits and pieces that are this country.  His comic phras
Literary Hub9 min read
Amber Tamblyn on a Woman’s Right to Choose… From More Than Just One Woman Candidate
A few months after handing in the final draft of my book to my editor at the end of 2018, a monumental historic event took place. One after another, an unprecedented number of women announced their candidacy for president of the United States in the