James Baldwin, a biography, by David Leeming

Is James Baldwin an intellectual? See note at bottom of review


James Baldwin became a literary giant with his writings exploring racism, class distinction and sexual difference in America. He was best known for his books: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanmi’s Room, Another Country, The Fire Next Time and The Evidence of Thing Not Seen.

“Blackness and whiteness do not matter,” was at the core message of James Baldwin confrontation of the black alienation in American society. He felt that race forced and shaped ever aspect of African-American life. His writings were accepted by the white community because of his view that racism hurt both sides. It not only softened their view but hardened some fellow black writers such as Langston Hughes who said: “Jimmy, I fear you are becoming a 'Negro' writer,”

Baldwin personalized the issue of race, transforming the issue of local conflict into one of individual conscience. He defended the arts saying they should not be reduced to tools of political writing. Baldwin’s approach resonated and led to his being the best known black writer of his times.

David Leeming was close to Baldwin and wrote the story of his life tying his thoughts and growth with the books and essays Baldwin was so well known for. Leeming is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. He personal closeness allowed him to include and focus on Baldwin difficulty in accepting his homosexuality, his attempted suicide in Paris in 1956 and his relationship with his unloving stepfather.

The book did a good job of seeing the development of Baldwins life and how it was part of his various writings but left many questions on who Baldwin really was.


“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” 

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” 

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” 

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

 “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be” 

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

Is James Baldwin an Intellectual?

James Baldwin approached race issues differently than most who spoke out in his time. He was out front on the idea that discriminating and hate hurt the haters as much, or even more , than the ones that were hated and discriminated against.

The question is does this insight really make him into a intellectual? Was his comments the result of intensive reasoning and deep thinking? Did he study our humanness, as Shakespeare did?

He did respond to conclusions about his own human condition but wouldn’t a better question have been “why do we hate others” rather than focusing on how we go about hate and why it hurts us?