James Baldwin has been dead for more than 30 years, but he is still a Jeremiah: a mournful prophet whose warnings about the health of the world appear to have gone unheeded. His 1963 book The Fire Next Time has reemerged as a discomforting guide for those bewildered by the global ascendance of the populist right, by the persistence of wealth disparity in the world’s most developed countries, by the deportations, by attacks on the free press, by police killings. Those seeking reassurance in the present through the belief that things “used to be worse” will find little comfort in his words. But perhaps they will find direction in his things.
In a surprise press conference in April 2017, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture announced they had purchased the largest single trove of Baldwin’s papers: 77 boxes of letters, sketches, boarding passes, contracts, and unfinished ideas. At the time of the acquisition, Baldwin (1924–1987) – the novelist, essayist, social critic, and activist born in Harlem and driven by the racism and homophobia he experienced in the States to live intermittently abroad in Paris and Istanbul, and on the French Riviera – was already enjoying a resurgence in interest not only from academics, but from the mainstream. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro (2016), based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, had won countless film awards, and according to CBS News, the late author’s book sales were up 110 percent around the time of the documentary’s release. The renewed attention is unlikely to relent: in late 2018, the first ever cinematic adaptation of Baldwin’s literary work premieres in theaters – a much-anticipated rendition of his 1974 young adult novel If Beale Street Could Talk, directed by Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins.
The Schomberg papers accessible to the public contain a wealth of confidences – a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis telling Baldwin he should meet Vladimir Nabokov and a telegram confirming an outing on a yacht figure among correspondence with literary agents and luminaries. Absent, however, are letters between Baldwin and his lovers, family members, and intimates – among them, Lucien Happersberger, who Baldwin described as the “one true love story” of his life – which must remain under seal for another 20 years. The author’s estate may not be ready for his private world to be revealed, but while his letters remain sheltered in New York, a trove of intimacies sits waiting, unsupervised by institutional frameworks, on the other side of the Atlantic: that trove of personal possessions, salvaged from Baldwin’s home in the town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he spent the last 16 years of his life.
The home the self-described “trans-Atlantic commuter” occupied between 1971 and 1987 was where Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, The Devil Finds Work – an essay collection on popular culture and cinema – his last novel, Just Above My Head, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen, a critical reportage on the terrifying series of crimes now known as the Atlanta child murders. It was also there that he completed The Welcome Table, a play that remains unpublished, but whose title reflects the function of the house as a place of refuge and making – not just for Baldwin, but for the other artists, thinkers, and exiles he hosted there. Baldwin worked, entertained, and died in this Provençal destination – where Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier, Yves Montand, or Sammy Davis Jr. might have been expected for lunch, or Beauford Delaney might have been spotted painting in the garden, Baldwin writing on the terrace nearby – leaving behind him a collection of belongings that witness this productive and rich time. Such a material legacy would have made Baldwin’s picturesque home a candidate for something to preserve and to display – for a “writer’s house” museum of the kind dedicated to Ernest Hemingway in Key West and on Lake Michigan, or to Jean Cocteau in Milly-la-Forêt, just south of Paris, where visitors can explore the carriage house the artist/poet/filmmaker owned with actor Jean Marais, complete with the movie posters, artworks, books, furniture, and hand-written notes and correspondence the couple created and lived with there.
To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.– James Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time"
There will never be a house museum for Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, however. The property was acquired by a developer and the construction of luxury condominiums is already well underway. Set to open in summer 2019, the development is branded “Jardin des Arts” (“Garden of the Arts”), although nothing in the promotional literature mentions the artistic hub it was when Baldwin lived there. Attempts to impede the building’s conversion have been diffuse and unsuccessful. That the site was not memorialized before its redevelopment is no doubt a product of historical hurdles, and of fundamental bias: what distinguishes Baldwin from the many writers and artists whose homes have been memorialized in the US and in Europe is that he was black. What distinguishes Baldwin from the handful of black activists, civil rights leaders, and social critics whose homes have been memorialized is that he was gay.
Baldwin’s novels were exceptionally popular in Germany in the 1980s. When his Another Country and Giovanni’s Room appeared in translation in the GDR in 1977 and 1980, respectively, both works had second printings – a remarkable achievement given the scarcity of printing paper at the time – which sold out within weeks. The urgency with which Baldwin’s works have resurfaced and been embraced in the last several years – on our side of the Atlantic as well as in the United States – is proof of the inclusive nature of Baldwin’s wish: to live and to love, freely. In 1963, he reflected in The Fire Next Time: “Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.” James Baldwin has earned his museum.