By William J. Maxwell; $22.99; Arcade. Publishing; 440 pages
Those who have seen Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro know the film is based on James Baldwin's unfinished project, an extended essay on the end of the civil-rights movementwhich Baldwin often referred to as the "last slave rebellion"and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. The book was to be called Remember This House, but could easily have been entitled Martin, Malcolm, Medgar and Me.
Having also witnessed the assassinations of the Kennedys; civil-rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner; and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, Baldwin was more than aware of the danger he faced as a civil rights-related public figure: He'd received death threats and feared he might be next. Some associates considered it grandiose and paranoid when Baldwin insisted that his phones were being tapped and claimed that he was under surveillance by the FBI as one of the leading proponents of the movement and the most eloquent critic of U.S. injustice toward the Negro. If William J. Maxwell's James Baldwin: The FBI File served no other purpose than to vindicate Baldwin suspicions that he was indeed being pursued by government agencies, it would be worth the read.
Initially obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by Baldwin biographer James Campbell after a successful 1998 court challenge, most of the contents of the file are accessible online. But one can be overwhelmed or left cold just looking through endless clippings and memos. ( Many pages were redacted before release. ) It helps to have a guide to provide context and to enable the reader to appreciate why Baldwin's FBI file mattered then and nowspecifically to activists in 2017. In the introduction, entitled "Baldwin and His File After Black Lives Matter," Maxwell argues that Baldwin ( as author and activist ) is still vital to our progressive movements, that intersectionality defined his work before it became a "thing" and that he is an "exemplar of the queer-inflected mood of the Black Lives Matter [BLM] era now."
Readers learn from Maxwell that the FBI had a relationship with outspoken Black writers dating all the way back to the Harlem Renaissance. A special report to J. Edgar Hoover in 1919 acknowledges the "marked ability" of the new Negro writer: "( He ) means business, and it would be well to take him at his word." James Weldon Johnson, author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man ( 1912 ), after reviewing a related FBI report on African-American literature, wrote, "[What] astonishes [them] most is the fact that these articles are written by Negroes who know how to use the English language." And no one, it can be argued, was more skilled at using the English language as a weapon of resistance than Baldwin.
The information we learn from the file is fascinating, divided into sections such as "Baldwin as Homosexual and Public Enemy" and "The Bureau Stalks Baldwin on Broadway." Wiretaps of a conversation between Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X reveal that Muhammad was deeply impressed by Baldwin after watching him on televisionwhich may be one of the reasons he agreed to sit down with him later, their meeting memorialized in Baldwin's iconic essay The Fire Next Time. Baldwin was publicly sassy despite his private concern; he knew he was being watched, and his response was to watch the watchers. His criticisms of the FBI were edited out by the USIA ( United States Information Agency ) from a television interview he gave in 1963, and yet he was openly critical of the bureau and said specifically of J. Edgar Hoover: "[He] is history's most highly paid ( and most utterly useless ) voyeur."
It is astonishing to discover not only that Baldwin's 1962 novel Another Country was considered obscene by many readers and banned in parts of the country, but that a bookseller in New Orleans was arrested by the vice squad for merely having the book on the shelf. District Attorney Jim Garrison, that Jim Garrison, refused to move the case forward, but assistant city attorney Edward Pinner was determined, pronouncing the book "so sickening that if the obscenity were removed, you'd have nothing but the covers left." A reader in the FBI's General Crimes Division was assigned the book, and after reading it wrote a report to Hoover: "Another Country by James Baldwin has been reviewed and it has been concluded that the book contains literary merit and may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior"a review so favorable that Maxwell posits it could have gone on the dust jacket of the book.
After several public comments by Baldwin, in 1963 he was placed on the FBI's Security Index, "the highly classified database tracking American citizens judged to be grave threats to national security." He knew there was a precedent for America messing with its Black artists. During the McCarthy years, Paul Robeson, for example, was denied renewal of his passport in 1955 despite filing a suit in federal court. And Native Son author Richard Wright's application for a passport in 1946 was also turned down by the State Department, until a formal invitation came from the French government, orchestrated by Gertrude Steinwith Marc Chagall and Jean Paul Sartre as supporters. Baldwin's file states that at one point he was considered "a dangerous individual who could be expected to commit acts inimical to the national defense." Reading this now may help us better understand his ultimate decision, for which he was often criticized, to live out his remaining days in St. Paul de Vence, France.
One can't help but mourn the time and personal resources that went into creating Baldwin's file. And at the core of the file is heartbreak: the betrayal by and suspicion of one's country, and the fact that Baldwin was never fully appreciated in the U.S. The file is his shadow tribute. People can only speculate how history might have been altered had Hoover gone after the terrorists who bombed the church in Birmingham with the same fervor with which he besieged Baldwin, an artist whose only "crime" was that he loved America enough to tell us the bitter truth about ourselves. Baldwin, who always reminded us about the important of "witnessing" in his work, can be seen today in the BLM activist who captures police brutality on her cellphone, as Maxwell writes, who speaks out against a Trump administrationwell aware that she may be inviting an FBI file of her own.
Also, see a related Gordon item on the James Baldwin film I Am Not Your Negro at www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/GUEST-COLUMN-On-I-Am-Not-Your-Negro/59254.html.