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Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 86, Number 4 (May 1985)

Hacskaylo, Christine
Baldwin revisited,   pp. 10-11

Page 10

By Christine Hacskaylo
I picked up a news release from the pile
     on my desk and read that the "re-
     nowned American writer and civil
rights activist," James Baldwin, was com-
ing to campus for the University's celebra-
tion of Black History Month in February. I
was surprised and elated. Surprised be-
cause neither he nor his work has been
much in evidence for a long time now.
Elated because here was an important
American voice.
   Although I had never heard him speak
or heard him read from his novels or es-
says, I had read and reread him as a young
girl. His was one of the clearest voices of
my own growing up.
   I first encountered Baldwin when I was
fourteen and starting to notice my country,
to wonder about its role in the world and
my own place in it. And my looking
around happened about the time the strug-
gle for civil rights caught fire in the South,
or at least caught the media's attention in
the North. Those were the days when the
movement played coast to coast on the
television sets of America. The days of sit-
ins and voter registration drives, of church
bombings and violent murders and mass
   Life and Look and Newsweek covered
the struggle with words and pictures, so
while we saw Dick and Liz and the birth of
the space program and Krushchev's visit to
Hollywood in their pages, we also saw
Birmingham with its dogs and clubs, saw
Medgar Evers' widow and son, saw South-
ern governors stand in the doorways of
their universities to bar the entrance of
black students. Segregation today, segre-
gation tomorrow, segregation forever.
   The small town of Wooster, Ohio,
where my sisters and I lived, had a college,
and luminaries of the civil rights move-
ment appeared there. Our parents took us
to hear Pete Seeger strum freedom songs.
Odetta sang "No More Auction Block For
Me" and Dick Gregory came to speak. We
were too young to go to that dangerous
and mysterious place, the South, where
the sophisticated and hopelessly older
college students of the town were spending
long "freedom summers." We mailed our
children's books off to Mississippi "free-
dom schools" instead.
   Among all these voices, James
Baldwin's often seemed to speak most
eloquently and passionately for the times.
He told us the hour was late, injustice was
real, and change was--or at least ought to
be-at hand.
H e was born in 1924 in New York
         City, the first of nine children
         and the grandson of a slave. He
 grew up in Harlem, and much of his writ-
 ing recounted a time when racism filtered
 down into the smallest, most ordinary
 event of a boy's day. In Down at the Cross
 he told us: "I was thirteen and was cross-
 ing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-
 second Street library, and the cop in the
 middle of the street muttered as I passed
 him, 'Why don't you niggers stay uptown
 where you belong?'"
   After high school, he worked and
 wrote and at twenty-four left America for
 France, where he has lived, off and on,
 ever since. In the '50s he began publishing
 in this country: essays, short stories, a
 play, and his acclaimed first novel, Go Tell
 It on the Mountain.
    It was in the '60s, though, that his
 writing received enormous popular and
critical attention. "Everybody Knows His
Name," trumpeted the headline of a
profile in Esquire in August of '64. By the
end of that decade, however, Martin
Luther King and a lot of other people had
been killed. Long hot summers of rioting
arrived, along with Eldridge Cleaver and
the Black Panthers and Angela Davis.
Baldwin was outshouted by younger, more
militant voices. The Bakke case and white
backlash avpeared on the horizon, and the
press paid less and less attention to racial
   It's hard to remember now how twenty
years ago America was stirred by the
image of black men and women, marching
and singing and going to jail and some-
times dying. It had seemed that some great
social revolution must be just around the
corner. It was and it wasn't, as we all know
   Suddenly Baldwin, too, whose picture
had graced the cover of national maga-
zines, was dropped from sight, and so
thoroughly that most of the students I
speak with today have never heard of him.
But he kept on writing: novels, a book on
blacks in the media, an occasional maga-
zine article, an award-winning piece pub-
lished in Playboy last year on the Atlanta
child murders. The critics have largely
ignored these later works or found them
   Nonetheless, his place in the canon of
twentieth century American literature
seems safe. He is thought to be among the
handful of our finest essayists, and critics
consider his first novel nearly flawless. He
has received numerous honorary degrees,
recognition awards and literary prizes, and
he is a member of the prestigious National
Institute of Arts and Letters. And he has
joined the college lecture circuit.

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