The Better James Baldwin

By Allen, Brooke | New Criterion, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Better James Baldwin


Allen, Brooke, New Criterion


Anyone familiar with the fiction and nonfiction of James Baldwin is aware that the formative influence upon his life and career was his stepfather. Baldwin was an illegitimate child; when he was three years old his mother married David Baldwin, a Southerner who had come to New York as part of the large stream of black migration north after the First World War. The elder Baldwin labored in a Long Island factory during the week and preached in Harlem storefront churches on Sundays. As a preacher, he was passionate but hardly successful: his increasingly bitter harangues were off-putting to his congregations, and he descended, over the years, to ever smaller, grimier, and more insignificant houses of worship.

Young Jimmy was never told that David Baldwin was not his real father, a fact that he discovered quite by accident when he was a teenager. He was in effect the eldest Baldwin child in what was to become a large family. David Baldwin was a powerful, brooding presence who cast a pall over the entire family. "He looked to me, as I grew older," James Baldwin wrote, "like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftains: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementos, standing among spears." He was "the most bitter man I have ever met," who emanated "absolutely unabating tension.... I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home."

Baldwin portrayed his stepfather in all his rage, violence, and religious hypocrisy as the preacher Gabriel Grimes in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and in that novel he also described his own temporary religious conversion, his experience, as a teenager, of being "saved." He acknowledged that his decision, at the age of fourteen, to become a child preacher was a way in which he could confront his stepfather on his own terms and his own turf, and beat him there. This task turned out to be almost pathetically easy, for David Baldwin's simmering rage and hatred, never far below the surface, made him an unpopular preacher, while Jimmy, endowed with the charm of youth and with the verbal glibness that was later to mar so much of his writing, made an immediate hit.

It was only a few short years before the younger Baldwin came to recognize his father's brand of religion -- and by extension his own -- for what it was: a justification of, and consolation for, the cruelties and injustices that black Americans felt powerless to change, and the sublimation of the debilitating anger that threatened at every minute to overpower them: a "dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted, one can never be really carefree again.... There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood -- one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it."

David Baldwin had surrendered to it long since, a process his stepson vividly reimagined in Go Tell It on the Mountain. "Hating and fearing every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him," the elder Baldwin went, over the years, from being merely an angry man to one who was literally mad. Laid off from his job, he took to sitting all day at the kitchen table, gazing out of the window and shouting Old Testament curses; eventually he refused to eat, claiming that his family was trying to poison him, and wandered in the streets until he was committed to a state mental institution. Raving and paranoid to the end, he died of tuberculosis just before his stepson's nineteenth birthday.

To James Baldwin, his stepfather remained, throughout his life, a fearsome example of what the same "dread, chronic disease" might work on him or on any of his black friends. The picture of his stepfather was never far from his mind, and when, as a young essayist and fledgling novelist, he decided in 1948 to leave New York for Paris, he looked on the move as flight, a necessary measure to keep him from going the same way. …

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