On May 24, 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met with a group composed of authors and civil rights icons at his Central Park South apartment. Among those in attendance were Lorraine Hansberry and her friend and fellow author, James Baldwin (1924-1987). The meeting quickly became volatile as the activists accused the Kennedy administration of dragging its feet on civil rights legislation. Their frustrations at the rampant discrimination in the United States and the inability of the government to take action, boiled over and Kennedy found himself in a hornet’s nest of raw emotion. The meeting left a permanent mark in his memory but in time he would become a vocal advocate for equal rights for all American regardless of race, creed or gender. His resurgence as the candidate of the poor and the downtrodden became the basis for his 1968 president campaign that ended tragically with his assassination in Los Angeles on June 5 ,1968. Baldwin outlived Kennedy by nineteen years and today both are remember for their efforts to transform the American conscious and way of thinking. In recent years, his work has been rediscovered and studied for its messages that were accurate then and are accurate now. Baldwin’s public stance of many topics was blunt and non-confusing. He did not mince his words and his delivery was direct and always mean to stir thought. But for all of his public actions, his private life is a story on its own that shows the author in a completely different light. His friend for many years, David Leeming, wrote this biography of his late friend to show the world who the real James Baldwin was. And what he has composed is a definitive account of the life of the late author.
The story of Baldwin’s life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. As a Black American born during the Jim Crow era and an openly homosexual, he was in unique position to observe the world classified under two groups of individuals openly persecuted in American society. The New York native struggled to find himself and his journey in life took him back and forth across the ocean to Europe where he would find a second him in France. And it was in France that he took his last breath after succumbing to the effects of a protracted battle with lung cancer. During a visit to Istanbul, Turkey in 1968, he met Leeming and the two formed a friendship that lasted for the rest of his life. Leeming was present when Baldwin passed and had also become close to Baldwin’s brother David who is featured throughout the book.
Homosexuality was a topic that Baldwin had no fear of addressing. His classic Giovanni’s Room tackles the taboo subject and did so at at time when such topics were only discussed in secrecy. However the book breaches a subject to which millions of people can relate as they face the same struggle daily. And when he wrote the all-time classic Go Tell It On The Mountain, he took us deep inside a blended family with a long history that continues to affect present day affairs. The book’s protagonist John, is forced to navigate this world as he finds his true calling in life. The reality of his works is that his own personal experiences helped shape his literary accomplishments. The same can be said about other authors such as Lorraine Hansberry, John Steinbeck Ernesto Che Guevara, M.D. Baldwin’s personal life and his orientation proved to be his most difficult challenges and throughout the book we are witnesses to his enduring struggle to find true love. In an ironic twist, the author who loved his people and his country, never found that love at home but instead traveled the world in search of it and himself.
Baldwin has been gone for nearly thirty years but I believe that in the next few years, his voice will become heard again as America continues to deal with discrimination. The cause in which he enlisted is far from over but his voice remains to guide us along the way. After reading this book, I felt inspired by his courage and gifts to us and ashamed for not having known more about him prior to this. For some he may come across as a radical too outspoken but for others, he is an icon and a voice of truth when most did not want to hear it. David Leeming has done a great service to his friend with this excellent biography with one of America’s greatest writers.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” – James Baldwin