Stanford English professor shines new light on pioneering writer and activist James Baldwin

From jazz to theater to children's books, Stanford Professor Michele Elam's forthcoming edited volume explores the panoramic career of one of America's most influential voices in matters of race and art. Now her book can help to trumpet Baldwin's full, trailblazing voice, quiet for too long.

Portrait of James Baldwin

Stanford English Professor Michele Elam explores the many sides of American author James Baldwin in the book she edited, “The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin.” (Image credit: National Portrait Gallery )

Outspoken, African American and queer, author James Baldwin wrote over 20 works that established him as one of the most stylistically innovative and politically radical authors of the post-war decades.

Today, Baldwin is best remembered for his moving novels and eloquently fiery essays from the 1950s and ’60s, which presented the contemporary African American experience with unprecedented honesty and power.

His works, like Go Tell it on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time, though, represent only part of Baldwin’s long and remarkably diverse career as an author and public intellectual – he was also a poet, a playwright, a children’s book author and a formidable public intellectual.

“He was somebody who could speak powerfully across different generations, races, populations and interest groups,” said Stanford English Professor Michele Elam, editor of a new volume on Baldwin’s life and career.

For much of that career, though, Baldwin was kept sidelined by powerful detractors and even allies within his own movement for his leftist political views, his expatriate life in Europe and, especially, his sexuality.

But nearly 30 years after his death, Elam said, Baldwin’s contributions to black artistic expression remain “poignant and relevant today.”

An expert in African American literature and cultural performance, Elam seeks to address Baldwin’s multifaceted legacy with a new collection of essays that delve into his relationship to celebrity, jazz, religion, theater, humor and the 1,884-page dossier that the FBI maintained on him over his lifetime.

The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin, being published this month by Cambridge University Press, is one of the first comprehensive critical studies of Baldwin in over a decade and, Elam said, the first to present a full, interdisciplinary approach to his prolific output.

Elam’s 13 contributors arrive from a number of disciplines, from English to African American history to performance studies.

Elam consciously selected both established and younger scholars to contribute to the volume, ensuring a mix of cross-generational perspectives. By keeping the language of the essays accessible, she said she hopes the book will spur anew the kind of conversations that Baldwin ignited wherever he went.

Tragic timing

The Companion’s publication arrives at a critical moment, as Baldwin crests back into national consciousness both through celebrations of what would have been his 90th birthday in 2014 and for the striking resonance of his views on race in America following deadly police force against Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., John Crawford III in Dayton, Ohio, Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

In the wake of the grand jury non-indictments of those police officers, Facebook and Twitter were flooded with texts and videos of Baldwin in an effort to try to make sense of a fraught moment of collective terror and confusion.

Activist websites like Urban Cusp highlighted Baldwin’s analysis of latent racial tensions, posting a prescient passage from a 1960 essay on how “One day, to everyone’s astonishment, someone drops a match in the powder keg and everything blows up.”

Elam noted, “There’s many African American figures you could quote [regarding white-on-black violence] but I think [Baldwin] in so many of his works and essays really spoke particularly poignantly to that fragility of black life.

“More than that, he wasn’t just bemoaning, he was trying to offer social diagnoses which might point a way to better interracial relations.”

YouTube clips of Baldwin racked up hundreds of thousands of views, such as a documentary from 1963, Take This Hammer that showed Baldwin speaking to black youth in San Francisco about the violence and profiling they experienced from police officers.         

“Everywhere I have been in this country, you talk to a white person, they say ‘race relations are excellent.’ But I have yet to find a single Negro in this country who agrees with that,” Baldwin says in the film.

The interactions shown, save for the black-and-white film stock and period clothing, could have easily taken place in the present day.

Elam lists the lessons we can still learn from Baldwin in her “Introduction” to the Cambridge Companion, writing that his “recognition that race is also a daily formation– renewed or resisted in the smallest, most mundane exchanges between people – leads him to conclude that the ‘challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.’ “

Stanford’s Another Look Book Club discussed Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time on March 5 with Elam, acclaimed author Tobias Wolff and Stanford Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam.

Reviving a legacy

Elam’s curation of the Cambridge Companion models itself after Baldwin’s own aesthetic ethos: to engage, to stimulate, to build community.

“Even though he is often represented as an alienated ex-pat,” Elam writes in her introduction, “Baldwin was actually at the very center of mid-20th century debates over the meaning and intersection of art, race, and politics … a writer singularly renowned as an essayist and novelist but who also promiscuously experimented with many other genres and frequently collaborated with other artists.”

Following his lead, the volume’s contributors formed their own ad hoc community, despite being spread across the states, meeting at conferences to collaborate and coordinate their individual essays into a powerful whole.

The resulting book presents interlocking pieces like “Paying Dues and Playing the Blues: James Baldwin’s Jazz” by Radiclani Clytus; “Baldwin’s Humor” by Danielle Heard; and “James Baldwin’s FBI files as Political Biography” by Douglas Field. With this interdisciplinary approach, Elam hopes to provide points of ingress to Baldwin’s work for a diverse set of readers.

Danielle Heard’s essay, “Baldwin’s Humor,” for instance, will be the first to examine “the wickedly rebellious comic sensibility” running through Baldwin’s written work and public appearances.

As Elam writes in the Companion’s introduction, Baldwin’s “laughter, his accent, his camp, his timing, his facial expressions” can be seen to “work both in, and occasionally against, the grain, of traditions of African American humor.”

Douglas Field’s “James Baldwin’s FBI Files as Political Biography,” Elam said, “offers close readings of many of those files – some only recently released – suggesting they reveal more about the FBI than the target of their investigations. Treating the files as both literary documents and cultural artifacts turns the FBI’s surveilling eye back on itself.”

Erica R. Edwards, in her contribution “James Baldwin and Black Leadership,” shows how Baldwin was one of the first commentators on race to capitalize and exploit the media, Elam said: “He’s one of the first people to understand how to use television,” leveraging public debates and talk show appearances to amplify his message.

Elam also wanted the volume to appeal to a wide range of readers, not only academic specialists. Thus, she said, she encouraged the contributors to “cut out the jargon,” hoping that anybody would “be able to pick up [the Companion] and read it.”

In doing so, she said, she was “thinking of putting something together for the next generation of people who would be moved by him.”

Nate Sloan is a doctoral candidate in musicology and writes about the humanities at Stanford.

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