James Baldwin affirmed his Southern identity after visiting DC, South
Baldwin was born in New York in 1924 and moved to France in 1948. With the release of the semi-autobiographical bestseller “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 1953, he had the means to become what he called a “transatlantic commuter”, living between Europe and the United States. So in early 1955, when Howard University professor Owen Dodson invited Baldwin to take part in the first production of Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner”, the 30-year-old embarked on an eye-opening journey to its southern roots.
At Howard, Baldwin got his first taste of American college life and met many people who would become lifelong friends. One, pipe teacher and poet Sterling Brown, would become a mentor. Brown defended Baldwin when members of the Howard community questioned his understanding of the South.
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Baldwin was a child of the Great Migration, raised by a mother from Maryland and a father from Louisiana, although the South, with its history of lynchings and racist justice, “always scared” him. But as he shared his fears with Brown, Baldwin realized that the South, as a whole, was “part of my identity as well.” Brown told him, “You’re only a generation away from the South, you know.
As the late Cheryl A. Wall noted in “Women of the Harlem Renaissance,” “members of Baldwin’s parents’ generation created social organizations in the North that maintained relationships among migrants based on ties to southern communities. Although his baptism into acting was a success, being seen as an out-of-touch northerner struck a chord that he would begin to understand by the end of the decade.
But first, Baldwin would return to Europe, where he would complete his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room.” While walking through Paris with a group that included Richard Wright, Baldwin recalled noticing a front-page photo of Dorothy Counts wading through a hostile crowd to desegregate a Charlotte high school. For Baldwin, who had attended an integrated public high school in New York, watching the violent backlash against school desegregation from abroad produced a combustible mix of feelings that ignited in him a desire to play a more active role in the movement for civil rights. (Scholar Ed Pavlić noted incongruities in Baldwin’s timeline here, but regardless, there was something kindled inside Baldwin.)
He needed to go home. In 1957, he embarked on a tour of the South, from Washington to Alabama.
In two essays published in 1958 and 1959 about this trip, Baldwin painted a sobering picture of northerners living in the South. On the eve of the sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides, Baldwin wrote that “what happens in the South today will happen in the North tomorrow”.
These essays were published in Baldwin’s 1961 collection “Nobody Knows My Name”. After its release, the Chicago-based Negro Digest reprinted an article by journalist Margaret Leonard Long, a white Georgian, who lambasted the perceived fashion for black writers gloomily exposing the South. “James Baldwin,” she writes, “plunges the white Southerner into a miserable state of shock somewhat mitigated by hot spurts of indignant identity with Negroes.” Baldwin, she argued, “should come home” and actually live in the South, noting that “his Deep Southern origins and birth in Harlem is enough for any ancestor-worshipping Southerner to claim him as rightfully the our. “
The most definitive and clarifying statement about his Southern heritage and identity came in an interview with renowned psychologist and fellow Harlemite Kenneth B. Clark the following year.
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In May 1963, Baldwin sat down with Clark for a public television interview. When Clark asked Baldwin about his background, he started with his birth in Harlem Hospital and the first house he remembered. Then he added: “I am, except in technical and legal fact, a southerner. My father was born in the South… my mother was born in the South, and if they had waited two more seconds, I might have been born in the South.
Baldwin’s affirmation of this identity completed the journey that began during his time at Howard, when he was dismissed as an uninformed northerner. As a rising voice during turbulent times, he set the record straight about why he was so invested in the struggles of the South. His proclamation also spoke to the world of cyclical poverty inherited by northern-born migrant children from the South, dispelling notions that life was magically better above the Mason-Dixon line. Despite his initial apprehensions about the South, he claims a heritage that eventually imbues him with the language and spirit of the region.
Blake Rogers Wilson is a Virginia-born, DC-based historian and doctoral candidate in United States History at Howard University.