James Baldwin: The Dark Realities of Racial Ferment in America


Muzafar Ahmad Bhat


African-American literature from approximately 1940 to the mid-1970 was primarily a masculinist enterprise dominated by Richard Wright’s protest novel and Ralph Ellison’s literary pluralism. It can be surmised that along with Alice Walker, re-discovery of Zora Neale Hurston and the pastoral tradition, the last two decades have witnessed an explosion of writing by black women and the recuperation of a black female literary history that dramatizes a specifically urban sensibility suggested by the novels of, among others, Nela Larsen, Ann Petry, and, of course. Toni Morrison. In the process, Baldwin’s novels have been relegated to the archives of the unread, cast aside in favour of the lapidary, famously polemical essays. The novels, however, despite their poor critical reception, are interesting because they rarely capitulate to the urge for a simplified rhetoric that characterizes the essays of the early 1970s, persistently retaining the unresolved tension and complexity of a writer- a gay black writer no less-divided between his role as a popular spokesman for the race and his role as an artist whose imaginative life encompasses aesthetic standards that may alienate a popular audience. The novel form partially liberated Baldwin from the pressures that, he felt as an essayist answerable to frequently hostile audience, both black and white. Baldwin’s work, moreover, suggests a cultural space where the trend in black literary history to polarize itself along gender lines might be reversed.


October 10, 2023