Baldwin and black leadership

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


James Baldwin's reputation as a race leader is as fraught as his relationships with black leaders themselves were dissimilar. On the one hand, a May 17, 1963 Time Magazine feature claims that Baldwin “is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader.” “He is,” we are told, “a nervous, slight, almost fragile figure, filled with frets and fears. He is effeminate in manner, drinks considerably, smokes cigarettes in chains, and he often loses his audience with overblown arguments.” And, of course, the author that Time depicts as an effete, not-quite-public intellectual was indeed often positioned as outside of, if not dangerous to, the images of black leadership that circulated in mass culture: Douglas Field points out that “it was common knowledge that he was nicknamed ‘Martin Luther Queen,’ with the implication that a ‘queen’ could not participate in the violent and manly battle for civil rights.” Baldwin's performance of leadership did not conform to the performative demands of black charismatic leadership that had solidified in U.S. culture by the 1960s. On the other hand, the success wrought by The Fire Next Time (1963) launched Baldwin into a veritable career as spokesman for the race. David Leeming writes, “Baldwin became more familiar than ever on television talk shows; soon he was recognized everywhere.” And while Negro leaders may have been too nervous about Baldwin's sexuality to invite him into their inner circles, movement activists on the ground, according to Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, “perceived Baldwin as the movement's most eloquent, penetrating and dependably accurate literary voice.” That Baldwin is as often referred to a prophet as a mere author no doubt captures the admiration with which his contemporary and successive audiences have regarded his truth-telling prose and his damning yet graceful diagnoses of the American condition in the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781107337725
ISBN (Print)9781107043039
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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  • Cite this

    Edwards, E. R. (2015). Baldwin and black leadership. In The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin (pp. 150-163). Cambridge University Press.