Living in Fire is a pithy yet powerful introduction to James Baldwin’s political life as a street fighting intellectual, raging against the world’s racist and reactionary forces, finds Adam Tomes

Bill V. Mullen, James Baldwin: Living in Fire (Pluto Press 2019), 230pp.

Bill Mullen’s erudite biography of James Baldwin takes us on a journey through the evolution of his radical politics. This means it is not a biography in the traditional sense but it does provide a unique insight into James Baldwin’s art, personal life and the freedom struggles that dominated his life as a ‘black, queer, working-class man coming of age in Cold War, homophobic America’ (p.xi). This life lived in fire does not turn Baldwin to radical politics but rather sees the radical politics pouring out of him through his essays, novels, plays, journalism and television appearances.

Mullen clearly lays out what it means for Baldwin ‘to “live in fire” and to relentlessly rage against those who made him burn’ (p.xi). Baldwin’s life was ‘to be a witness to history, and to walk in struggle’ (p.75) and that struggle was very real with Baldwin targeted by the American state and society for his class, his colour, his sexuality and his politics. The FBI placed him in their crosshairs, opening a file on his activities, with the ever loathsome J Edgar Hoover directly asking the question, ‘Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?’ (p.103).

His sexuality would cause him to be dubbed by some during the Civil Rights era as ‘Martin Luther Queen’ and would see Baldwin challenging the homophobia directed at him by Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Oakland Black Panther Party. Baldwin’s public battle with Cleaver, particularly through his 1972 book, No Name in the Street, was part of his struggle to ‘create space in the black freedom struggle for black queer sexuality’ (p.140).

The Fire Next Time

Despite living in fire, James Baldwin did not let the fire consume but rather allowed his ‘practice of lived resistance to capitalism, imperialism, and oppression’ (p.xiii) to inform his work. As a novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet, Baldwin possessed incredible strength of character, moral imagination and a wonderfully taut and perceptive style. His classic, The Fire Next Time (1963), a seminal text of Civil-Rights-era America, opens as a short letter to his nephew highlighting the historical injustices stitched into the fabric of America.

The second chapter, ‘Down at the Cross’, shows Christianity as one of the white world’s false standards, with the Bible written by white men, in order to establish political power and empire in the name of God. Baldwin advocates a racial revolution in the USA, arguing that ‘the price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks’ in an echo of Marx’s words that ‘labour in the white skin cannot be freed where in the black it is branded’ (p.107).

Mullen argues that throughout the work of Baldwin, there is an ‘understanding of whiteness not as a biological category but as constructed by society’ (p.13) and this informs his solution to the problem of race. Baldwin makes it clear in his advice to his nephew that by understanding his own history, and American history, he can gain his own sense of power and cast aside the twisted, false beliefs imposed on him by society. It was his role and responsibility, as an African American, not to get white people to accept him but rather to learn to find a way to accept them. White America must free itself from its own history, by learning to understand it in all its blood and violence, so that they can understand themselves and African Americans. This summary is best expressed in the film, The Price of the Ticket: ‘As long as you think you are white, there’s no hope for you’ (p.13).

The Fire Next Time is Baldwin’s jeremiad offering a foreboding prophecy that the fire next time will burn down the house of the USA unless the unconditional freedom of African Americans is achieved. Baldwin warns that ‘a bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay’ (p.107). This fear seems to collapse the gap between the past and present, offering a clear vision of the emergence of the reactionary forces in the USA, and across the world, that cannot and will not accept that ‘this world is white no longer, and it will never be white again’ (The Stranger in the Village, quoted on p.17). These reactionary forces have normalised white nationalism and white supremacy, and resulted in ‘new far-right mobilisations, targeted killings of blacks, Jews, and Muslims, and the demonization of immigrants’ (p.188).

Black Lives Matter

Mullen’s guide to Baldwin’s life and work is all the more essential due to Baldwin’s rediscovery by a new generation of activists as a ‘mentor, historian, and advocate for struggle on the streets’ (p.104). Baldwin’s work in the 1980s and onwards was disappeared from the mainstream, essentially through a process of de-radicalising him in the same way that can be seen in figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King. His removal from academic curricula, the focus on his earlier works, and the study of him only through excerpts of his texts to decontextualise them, was all part of the process. For Mullen, this is down to the fact the Baldwin was a canary in the coal mine of the new culture wars emerging in Reagan’s America that was to pit ‘conservative traditionalists against the upstart crows of feminism, ethnic studies and queer studies’ (p.153).

Baldwin’s importance is highlighted by the fact he both predicted the global Black Lives Matter movement and has become one of its touchstones. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influential book, Between the World and Me (2015), uses Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time as its blueprint in highlighting the racist violence inherent to the American state and society. It is not hard to see why.

The police violence towards black people in the American, carceral state is identified by Mullen as one of Baldwin’s central strands to his writing and thinking. In his powerful essay, ‘A Report from Occupied Territory’ (1966), Baldwin uses the case of the Harlem Six to make the point that ‘the law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer’ (p.119). He sees the police and the whole legal framework as enemies of the African-American population, established to keep the African American in his place and protect the business interest of white capital. The same message echoes through his brilliant 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, which reveals ‘harsh lessons about legacies of state repression, police violence, and the criminalisation of black political dissidents’ (p.135) and was turned into a film by Barry Jenkins in 2018 as part of the revival of interest in Baldwin.

The clarity of Baldwin on this is only heightened by the endless roll call of black people that have been systematically targeted for death by the American state and society in the twenty-first century. This seems particularly poignant in February 2020, which is the month in which Trayvon Martin should have been celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday.

Bastard of the West

Mullen is right to point out that Baldwin’s radical politics extends beyond the politics of the USA. Baldwin left the USA in the 1940s, citing in a letter that ‘everywhere people are sick or dying or dead’ (p.45) and became an African American abroad, an interloper, seeing himself as a ‘bastard of the West’ born there but not wanted or part of its heritage (p.49). He fled to Paris, ending up on the streets with $40 in his pocket believing nothing worse could happen to him there than happened to him in the USA. He spent much of his life in France and Turkey, and this exile created two roles for him as a political exile, ‘as survivor and witness’ (p.x). In this role, Baldwin was able to develop an internationalist perspective, which was strengthened by the freedom struggles of colonised people across the world.

In particular, his time in Paris brought into contact with Algerians in France, highlighting the relationship between the colonised and the coloniser. Baldwin was able to synthesise the oppression of the Algerians with the Civil Rights struggle in the USA to develop ‘a new understanding of black urban rebellion, police racism, and state terror as an international phenomenon’ (p.79).

This attitude informed Baldwin’s opposition to the Vietnam War, where he centred his idea of Black Power as an opposition to US imperialism and state violence. He argued that ‘a racist society can’t but fight a racist war’ (p.124) and ‘therefore, every bombed village is my hometown’ (p.131). This highlights two key ideas; one that African Americans are the internally colonised subject of the USA and secondly that America was the ‘most terrifying nation in the world’ (p.125). Both ideas remain powerfully relevant today, where the repressive power of the American state is expressed through the mass incarceration of African Americans at home and the inhumane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in the refugee camps on the border.

Cowboy Culture Masculinity

Mullen shows that throughout Baldwin’s career, throughout his writing, was ‘challenging heteronormative black and white sexuality on its own terms, ridiculing the fetishizing of straight bodies and straight lives as part of a culture of reaction, repression and gay panic in the United States’ (p.xii). This can be seen in many of his characters such as David in Giovanni’s Room (1956), Rufus Scott in Another Country (1962) and Arthur Montana in Just Above My Head (1979).

However, it was the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House, at the head of the ‘moral majority’ that that confronted Baldwin with a sickening revival of white-supremacist ruling-class power married with the Christian Church. Baldwin perceptively saw in Reagan and this new movement a brutal contempt for the poor, a theologically driven contempt for the victims of HIV/AIDS and a total disregard for black lives. Baldwin’s perception of Reagan was entirely backed up by his actions in office, slashing the social-welfare budgets, labelling African-American women as lazy welfare queens cheating the state, and is given even more weight by the release last year of tapes of his conversation with Nixon in 1971 where he uses openly racist stereotypes. Perhaps it is little surprise that Reagan and Trump both used the same campaign slogan; Make America Great Again.

Reagan is ‘the consummation of cowboy culture masculinity, a political incarceration of the “Gary Cooper” figure of the American Western’ (p.xvii). It was of course the cowboy, Gary Cooper, who James Baldwin remembers rooting for in the films as a child as he kills off the Indians, who was the grinning epitome of the ideal of America; he was white, successful and healthily heterosexual. It comes of course as a great shock to Baldwin as he looks in the mirror to find that he is the Indian, the Other, a human being considered worthless for not being the ideal.

This leads him to read his ‘modern manifesto of queer politics’ (p.163), Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood (1985). In it, Baldwin argues that:

‘The American ideal, then, of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American ideal of masculinity … It is an ideal so paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden – as an unpatriotic act – that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood’ (quoted on p.172).

This was for Baldwin, an accurate drawing of Ronald Reagan yet the view of the American boy trapped in his own white male heterosexuality, unable to grow up and with a visceral fear of the Other seems to define Donald Trump just as clearly.

Remember this house

In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin asks the powerful question: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’ This remains a powerful question for all those considered the Other by the cowboy-culture masculinity of modern America. I think reading Mullen’s biography of James Baldwin helps us to start to think about how this question should be answered. 

Baldwin’s ability ‘to tether white masculinity, state power, US domestic and international power’ (p.xvii) allows him to illustrate how racism, homophobia and class inform America’s cultural imagination as well as its societal and state structures. Baldwin argues that the whole ideological system has created no place for the Other and whilst you can pledge allegiance to the flag, it will not pledge allegiance to you. Given that these interlocking systems of oppression are an integral part of the glittering Republic, there is no point in politely seeking reform and integration through the usual channels.

The only answer lies in the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure as well as its cultural imagination. The burning house, including the laws and practices of state-sanctioned violence, must be swept away to provide a space to build a new, radical form of democracy.