Excerpt from Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin

  07 Jun '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

“I never had a childhood,” James Baldwin told a French interviewer in 1974. To a journalist ten years earlier, he proclaimed, “I did not have any human identity.” To his French interviewer he added, for good measure, “I was born dead.”

He was in fact born in the Harlem Hospital at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, New York City, on August 2, 1924, illegitimate, James Arthur to Emma Berdis Jones. She was not yet twenty years old and lately arrived in New York City from Deals Island, Maryland, caught in the northward drift which was sweeping thousands of her race and generation out of the strictly segregated Southern states. Emma Berdis knew the name of her first child’s father, but she would not tell her son, and he never found out. “I never had a childhood” means, partly, “I never had a father.”

Before embarking on the story of a writer’s life, it is customary to offer some discussion of his ancestry; but what to do about this writer’s? His mother had conceived her son “in sin”—as she herself, a devout Christian woman, would have felt—and then closed the door on the subject. The name Jones was within three years changed to Baldwin, which never felt properly his own: passed on to James through his mother’s husband David, who was not his father, through his father, who had been born a slave.

If it was necessary to isolate a single, dominating impulse driving James Baldwin’s work, it would be the need to defeat the silence which lies behind slavery and his people’s first forced arrival in America—the Land of the Free, as Baldwin never tired of ironically repeating. The voice of his ancestors echoes through his pages, filtering black biblical rhetoric and blues and gospel lyrics through the autobiographical mode he adopts to tell his own singular story—the story of all his race—again and again, from first to last.

“I was born,” Baldwin also said, “in the church,” meaning not only that his mother was devout and his stepfather a preacher, but that the moral world in which he grew up was fortified and sanctioned by generations of deep believers. He learned something of the power of language in the church—in the pulpit, as a boy-preacher. He would turn his back on his faith by the time he was seventeen, but although he left the church, the church never left him. Would he have reiterated that he was “born in the church” if it had? The prophecy of wrath and the quest for salvation shaped his imagination, just as the vocabulary and cadence of the King James Bible and the rhetoric of the pulpit were at the heart of his literary style.

In 1927, Emma Berdis had married David Baldwin, a laborer and a Baptist minister who preached in New Orleans and later in Harlem. Born in the small town of Bunkie, Louisiana, he had come north in 1919. According to his stepson, writing in 1955, David Baldwin had left the South partly because of an inability to communicate with people, to establish ordinary social relationships, and also because his puritan soul recoiled at the prospect of New Orleans, with its vaudeville associations, as a new-world Sodom and Gomorrah.

This is a convincing “domestic” explanation of a difficult personality acting to resolve a spiritual crisis. Later on, however, Baldwin would reinterpret his father’s problems and say that he had fled the South because “lynching had become the national sport.” Here we come upon the first instance of a recurring characteristic: an interpretation of events which is not quite a misinterpretation, but, rather, a heightened reading, made in retrospect, but with the benefit of what Baldwin usually referred to David Baldwin as his father, and to himself as David’s son; from now on, that is how their relationship will be described here might be termed “hind-second-sight.” This reading uses facts somewhat as a poet might treat them; that is not to say it abuses them, but that it attempts to forge them into the kind of truth which goes beyond matters of fact. It is less dramatic (though perhaps no less disturbing) to say that a forebear changed his locale out of personal difficulties than to suggest that he was fleeing the lynch mob. Yet Baldwin is most certainly not lying or
romanticizing: lynching was indeed the terror of the South. In 1919, when David Baldwin left, lynchings were commonly reported in New Orleans newspapers, were not greatly condemned, and were divided into “good lynchings” and “bad”—the latter being those deemed unduly brutal.

Nevertheless, Baldwin’s father probably left New Orleans, as James himself would later quit New York, for a complex of reasons, the general lawlessness toward blacks having as much to do with it as anything else. What is a traditional literary device—compression, the arrangement of details in a certain order so as to charge them with significance—commonly becomes in Baldwin’s hands a way of rereading and retelling his own life story.

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