When James Baldwin Was a ‘Has-Been’

Baldwin first ascended into the ranks of America’s great literary figures while raising, particularly in his searing essays, unsettling q...

Baldwin first ascended into the ranks of America’s great literary figures while raising, particularly in his searing essays, unsettling questions about the nation’s past and present, all rendered with a cutting, double-edged honesty: He was unsparing but also generous, lyrical, edifying as a conscience. More than decade and a half before Chase arrived for the “20/20” interview, in the early 1960s, Baldwin would appear on the cover of Time magazine (“The Negro’s Push for Equality”), travel for television appearances and lectures and, famously, debate the conservative writer William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in 1965. As the 1970s closed, though, and the gains of the civil rights movement quelled mainstream fascination, Baldwin no longer roused attention in quite the same way. In 1979, something convinced ABC that the “20/20” interview wasn’t enough. The segment was scrapped. According to Lovett, the reaction at the show was, roughly, “Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?”

It’s not unusual for thinkers’ reputations to fade or swell according to society’s use for them. Our use for Baldwin, who died in 1987, has clearly returned to a great high. Over the last decade, writers including Ta-Nehisi Coates have taken him as an explicit model in their works; an Oscar-nominated documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” was built from an unfinished Baldwin manuscript, and an Oscar-nominated film from his novel “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Last year, one of The New Yorker’s most-read stories was an essay he wrote for the magazine in 1962.

Among earlier critics, though, Baldwin could face a combination of dissent and humiliation. By the late 1960s, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a 1992 essay, “Baldwin-bashing was almost a rite of initiation” for a new generation of Black intellectuals; he was dismissed with homophobic epithets, or had his erudition interpreted as a capitulation to white intellectuals. (“Soul on Ice,” Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir, was laced with homophobic rebukes of Baldwin and described “Negro homosexuals” as “frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man”; Amiri Baraka criticized Baldwin for “playing the distressed aesthete in Europe.”) Martin Luther King Jr., in a private conversation recorded and summarized by the F.B.I., claimed to be put off by Baldwin’s “poetic exaggeration.” Even that Time magazine profile noted that Baldwin was “not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader,” described him as “nervous, slight, almost fragile” and “effeminate in manner,” and said he “often loses his audience with overblown arguments.”

What once felt poetically exaggerated, of course, can now feel prophetic. Baldwin was a disquieting tremor that would agitate generations — a role he seemed acutely aware of, even at the lowest ebbs of the public’s attention. “I was right about what was happening in the country,” he said in his final interview, with the poet Quincy Troupe in 1987. “What was about to happen to all of us really, one way or the other.” He could be merciless both on and off the page, having decided, at some point, not to rely on the approval of any audience, white or Black. “Do you think there’s still a chance for today’s Black writer?” he is asked by a young boy, in the part of the “20/20” segment when he speaks with children at a police athletic league in Harlem. “There never was a chance for a Black writer,” Baldwin replies, taking the boy’s chin in his hand. “A writer, Black or white, doesn’t have much of a chance. Nobody wants a writer until he’s dead.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: When James Baldwin Was a ‘Has-Been’
When James Baldwin Was a ‘Has-Been’
Newsrust - US Top News
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