Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin

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9780743293082: Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin

Baldwin's Harlem is an intimate
portrait of the life and genius of one
of our most brilliant literary minds:
James Baldwin.


Perhaps no other writer is as synonymous with Harlem as James Baldwin (1924-1987). The events there that shaped his youth greatly influenced Baldwin's work, much of which focused on his experiences as a black man in white America. Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovanni's Room are just a few of his classic fiction and nonfiction books that remain an essential part of the American canon.

In Baldwin's Harlem, award-winning journalist Herb Boyd combines impeccable biographical research with astute literary criticism, and reveals to readers Baldwin's association with Harlem on both metaphorical and realistic levels. For example, Boyd describes Baldwin's relationship with Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Countee Cullen, who taught Baldwin French in the ninth grade. Packed with telling anecdotes, Baldwin's Harlem illuminates the writer's diverse views and impressions of the community that would remain a consistent presence in virtually all of his writing.

Baldwin's Harlem provides an intelligent and enlightening look at one of America's most important literary enclaves.

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About the Author:

HERB BOYD is an award-winning author and journalist who has published eighteen books and countless articles in national magazines and newspapers. Among his most popular books are We Shall Overcome and The Harlem Reader. Currently he is managing editor for The Black World Today and teaches at The City College of New York and the College of New Rochelle in the Bronx. He lives in Harlem with his wife.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
Born in Harlem

I was born in Harlem," James Arthur Baldwin declared at the beginning of Notes of a Native Son, his first published collection of nonfiction. And he described this location in Harlem as "a very wide avenue" in his essay "Notes for a Hypothetical Novel," where the vicinity was known as "The Hollow." "Now it's called Junkie's Hollow," he added. Most of the junkies of Baldwin's day, whether he was referring to dope addicts or the old men who picked up rags and iron, vanished from the scene a generation ago, subsequently replaced by crack addicts and an urban tribe of hunters and gatherers looking for bottles and cans, and anything else the market would bear. The Harlem Baldwin knew has undergone stages of dramatic change, and the most recent transformation -- the incessant advance of gentrification -- may soon give Harlem the same demographics that were so evident at the beginning of the twentieth century when various European ethnic groups were among the dominant residents. To some degree, Baldwin anticipated these relative social and political changes, and it might have been the perfect kind of diversified Harlem to appeal to his universal outlook, though one assesses Baldwin's mood and attitude at great risk.

"When I grew up we lived in what was recognized as a neighborhood," Baldwin told anthropologist Margaret Mead during their conversation. "Everybody vaguely knew everybody else. We knew the man who ran the drugstore, the man who ran the butcher shop. We may not have liked all these people, but there they were. Later on, when they started tearing down the slums, as they said, and building these hideous barracks, the neighborhood disappeared. There was no longer communication between the people."

To be sure, whether stated proudly or with disdain, Harlem would be a recurring theme in all of Baldwin's works. In a later chapter, we will see that his native community took on a variety of configurations, sometimes a fully developed character elbowing into conversations, and at other times a shadowy presence, hardly noticeable as the action moves in and around its perimeters of hope and despair. Sometimes it was merely a matter of whether the scenario was real or imagined. Though Baldwin left Harlem when he was nineteen -- never to live there again and returning only for occasional visits -- he had "absorbed the full impact of the community," said his sister Gloria Karefa-Smart. "He often came back because we were there. But by the time he was a teenager, he had gathered a wealth of experience, much of which can be found in his fiction and nonfiction."

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. The hospital, which had been founded in 1887 in a brownstone on 120th Street and the East River, was greatly expanded once it was relocated in 1911 to Lenox Avenue between 135th and 137th Streets, about four blocks from the first of several Baldwin residences in Harlem. In 1920, perhaps capitulating to community pressure to employ black doctors, the hospital hired Dr. Louis T. Wright. Dr. Wright arrived six years before Dr. May Chinn was hired as the first African American female intern at the hospital. It was a hot and humid Saturday when Baldwin came screaming into the world, and if he had come a day earlier his wail might have joined the cacophony of trumpets, trombones, and thumping drums from a massive parade of Garveyites that had filed past the hospital on their way to nearby Liberty Hall, next door to Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street, for their annual convention. There was probably enough noise to induce labor. By this time, the flamboyant Marcus Garvey had already been convicted of using the mail to defraud patrons who sought to purchase stock in the financially troubled Black Star Line. By 1925, he would begin serving a sentence that was ended in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge pardoned him and then had him deported.

"Eight modest, unassuming brass bands blared away down Lenox Avenue," recalled author Zora Neale Hurston. "A few thousand pennants strung across the street overhead...a few floats, a dozen or so titled officials and he [Marcus Garvey] was ready for his annual parade." The Universal Negro Improvement Association's monthlong fourth annual International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World was well under way by the time baby Baldwin began to gaze about him, sizing up his surroundings with his alert, all-seeing eyes, and at the same time seeking comfort ever deeper into his mother's embrace. "A black boy born in New York's Harlem in 1924," Baldwin wrote, "was born of southerners who had but lately been driven from land, and therefore was born into a southern community." His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, was twenty-two years old and unmarried. She had arrived in New York City from Deal Island, Maryland, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, along with that multitude of migrants, "blues people" from the South who were fleeing Jim Crow, the Klan, and a horde of other social and political demons that made life dangerous and unbearable for many black Americans.

Baldwin had no idea who his birth father was, and thus he wrote hardly anything about him. About Berdis, as she was called, there are only a few places in which she is discussed with more than passing remarks. What he did recall was that his mother, like him and his siblings, lived in dread and fear of David Baldwin, whom she married three years later. "It did not take me long, nor did the children, as they came tumbling into this world, take long to discover that our mother paid an immense price for standing between us and our father," James wrote. Like an usher, the eldest child stood by, seemingly with a counter, noting the arrival of his brothers and sisters: "George in January [1928], Barbara, in August [1929], Wilmer, in October [1930], David, in December [1931], Gloria [1933], Ruth [1935], Elizabeth [1937], and (when we thought it was over!) Paula Maria [1943], named by me, born on the day our father died, all in the summertime." In those days, Baldwin lamented, "My mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other." To date, while all of his sisters are alive and well, only George remains of his brothers.

The one time he described his mother was in a recollection of a childhood day when he came running into the house after seeing an ugly drunk woman on the street, and asked her to hurry to the window to view the hideous creature. "You see? You see? She's uglier than you, Mama! She's uglier than me!" There is no record of his mother's response to this comment, and photos of Berdis indicate that she may not have been a raving beauty, but she was by no means an ugly woman, unless the stylized figure of Eshu of the Yoruba -- with its bulging eyes that "embody the power to make things happen" -- is unsightly.

Whatever her visage, it was no better or worse than the thousands who flocked with her beyond the "cotton curtain," looking for better opportunities in the so-called northern promised land. "By 1920 the section of Harlem bordered approximately by 130th Street on the south, 145th Street on the north, and west of Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue was predominantly Negro -- and inhabited by some 73,000 people. Two-thirds of Manhattan's Negro population lived there in 1920," historian Gilbert Osofsky observed. The Baldwins lived within this narrowly circumscribed enclave, never moving beyond these boundaries. They had been there since the pioneering days of Philip Payton, who founded the Afro-Am Realty Company, and the enterprising Lillian Harris "Pig Foot Mary" Dean, who parlayed a business selling chitterlings, roasted corn, and other products into a real estate empire.

Like Pig Foot Mary, Baldwin and his brothers often demonstrated entrepreneurial zeal. "People were doing all kinds of things to make a living, shining shoes, selling papers," George Baldwin recalled. "Me, Lover [Wilmer] and some of our friends would sell firewood to our neighbors. We would get the wood from over on the east side from a lot of abandoned houses. We would carry our axes and bushel baskets and follow behind the WPA [Works Project or Progress Administration] workers, picking up what they had left behind after they finished a job. The heavy thick wood we got would burn longer, so this would be sold to the coal flats."

"Harlem was not an all-black community during the time I was growing up," Baldwin wrote. Among the smorgasbord of ethnicities scattered around Harlem were Italians, Irish, Finns, Poles, Jews, West Indians and other 'exotics.' We could all be found eating as much as we could hold in Father Divine's restaurant for fifteen cents," he recalled, referring to the religious cult leader who provided inexpensive meals for the homeless and destitute during the Depression.

Given the diversity of ethnic groups competing for jobs, housing, and self-respect, the turbulence and conflict among them were inevitable. But for all the talk about racial tension, the main source of discord was between African Americans and the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean. Despite their racial commonality, their differences in culture, religion, and lifestyle often left them at odds, and those toxic moments were not relieved by ridicule, insults, and doggerel hurled at the new arrivals by native blacks and others. "When a monkey chaser dies, you don't need an undertaker, throw him in the Harlem River, and he'll float back to Jamaica" was a common verse, mocking some of the newcomers and often leading to violence. Rudolph Fisher, novelist and short story writer of the Harlem Renaissance, captured some of the tension that resulted from confrontations between indigenous blacks and the influx of people from the islands. His haughty West Indian protagonist, Cyril Sebastian Best, not only looked down his nose at Black Americans but his own kinsmen. "There were British West Indians in Harlem who would have told Cyril Sebastian Best flatly to his face that th...

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Book Description Atria Books. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 272 pages. Dimensions: 8.3in. x 5.4in. x 0.7in.Baldwins Harlem is an intimate portrait of the life and genius of one of our most brilliant literary minds: James Baldwin. Perhaps no other writer is as synonymous with Harlem as James Baldwin (1924-1987). The events there that shaped his youth greatly influenced Baldwins work, much of which focused on his experiences as a black man in white America. Go Tell It on the Mountain, The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovannis Room are just a few of his classic fiction and nonfiction books that remain an essential part of the American canon. In Baldwins Harlem, award-winning journalist Herb Boyd combines impeccable biographical research with astute literary criticism, and reveals to readers Baldwins association with Harlem on both metaphorical and realistic levels. For example, Boyd describes Baldwins relationship with Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Countee Cullen, who taught Baldwin French in the ninth grade. Packed with telling anecdotes, Baldwins Harlem illuminates the writers diverse views and impressions of the community that would remain a consistent presence in virtually all of his writing. Baldwins Harlem provides an intelligent and enlightening look at one of Americas most important literary enclaves. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780743293082

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