A celebration of James Baldwin’s literature and legacy published in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his death.
Written as an open letter to the late author and initially published in France in 2007, this book has been classified by the publisher as “literary memoir,” but it functions more as an elliptical biography. Like his literary idol, Mabanckou (French Literature/UCLA; Broken Glass, 2010, etc.) is an émigré to Paris and has spent plenty of time in the United States. But since he is an African, he brings a different perspective to themes of literary exile, race relations and the African diaspora than have Baldwin’s biographers (whom he cites liberally). He’s particularly incisive on the relationship between Baldwin and the stepfather who was much older than his mother, as Baldwin wrestled with issues of identity from childhood. His stepfather hated “white demons” and their culture with a virulence that the boy didn’t share and also instilled a harsh religiosity that his stepson would also reject. Yet James was himself “preaching from the age of fourteen,” and it was there that he became “aware of the power of the word,” with the biblical resonance that would inform so much of Baldwin’s work. Moving to France and openly acknowledging his homosexuality reinforced Baldwin’s sense of otherness, and he rebelled against such literary patriarchs as Richard Wright. “[I]dols are created in order to be destroyed,” he wrote of his rift with Wright. He also found himself at odds with the Black Power militants of the 1960s, with Eldridge Cleaver condemning him for “the most agonizing, complete hatred for Blacks.” Yet the novelist’s influence endures, and his imprint is even stronger in France, writes Mabanckou, who declares, “[i]f you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive.”
The conceit of the letter and the oddly intimate tone toward “Jimmy” make this a curious work, but it’s often insightful and illuminating.