Highlighting Author and Activist James Baldwin

Cover of Time magazine featuring James Baldwin, May 17, 1963.

James Baldwin was a leading literary voice of the civil rights movement. Over his career, he wrote over a dozen novels and essay collections as well as a handful of plays, short stories, and poems. He became very active in Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), through which he began lecturing on racial inequality at various schools and universities.  While engaging in these organizations, he wrote the book-length essay, The Fire Next Time, which won him wide acclaim and landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1963.

Interviews of Baldwin in Special Collections

As a major figure in the civil rights movement in the United States and particularly in his home city of Harlem, New York, Baldwin was frequently interviewed in documentaries and television programs about the African American experience. Washington University Libraries has several of these interviews in its archives as a part of the Miles and Hampton Film Collections.

Filmmaker William Miles (left) interviews author James Baldwin in Miles’ four-part documentary special, I Remember Harlem. Washington University Libraries, William Miles Collection.

Filmmaker William Miles interviewed James Baldwin for his four-part documentary special I Remember Harlem, which traces the history of the city of Harlem from its beginnings in the 17th century to the early 1980s.  Later, Miles went on to co-produce a documentary on Baldwin called The Price of the Ticket, which aired on PBS as part of its American Masters series in 1989, about two years after the writer’s death. The documentary features a number of interviews of his friends and colleagues, including Maya Angelou, Amin Baraka, his brother David, and his mother Berdis. You can watch a short clip of Maya Angelou speaking about Baldwin on PBS’s American Masters website.

Cover of James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son.

Henry Hampton, filmmaker and owner of the production company Blackside, includes Baldwin in “The Dreamkeepers” episode of his 1999 I’ll Make Me a World series that honors the achievements of African Americans in the arts. The documentary discusses the author’s flight to Paris, his return to the United States after reading about the Little Rock Nine in the papers, and his subsequent activism.

The Henry Hampton Collection also contains stock footage of Kenneth Clark interviewing James Baldwin on what can be done to change the moral fiber of America, the student movement in the South, Black Muslims, Black supremacy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the future of the African American. Baldwin was friends with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers and reminisces about them in his unfinished memoir, Remember This House, which is the subject of the new 2016 documentary on Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.

Baldwin and Gay Rights

Cover of James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room.

In addition to his civil rights work, Baldwin is also known for promoting the acceptance of gays and lesbians long before the gay rights movement gained political traction. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, created controversy for its empathetic treatment of its gay and bisexual main characters. Henry Hampton had a copy of Giovanni’s Room in his library, which is now a part of the Washington University Libraries Henry Hampton Collection.

In an interview with the Bookstand BBC, Baldwin explains his motivation for writing fiction about marginalized groups, stating:

“I think that if I’m a novelist with a message, it’s only one… And that would be the effort that one has got to make, according to me, the very dangerous effort one has got to make to deal with other people as though they were simply human beings… From my point of view, no label and no slogan and no party and no skin color, and indeed no religion is more important than the human being.”

Baldwin in St. Louis

In November of 1984, only a few years before his death, Baldwin participated in a discussion here at Washington University in the Women’s Building. The audio reel recording of this lecture is part of the Modern Literature Recorded Multimedia Collection, although it has yet to be digitized. While he was in St. Louis, Baldwin also did a recorded reading for St Louis literary magazine, River Styx. This interview is a part of the River Styx Archive that is currently being digitized as part of a grant project with the National Historical Publications & Records Commission and will be available once the project is complete.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.