chapter  6
46 Pages

Identity Undone: James Baldwin and the Destiny of America

James Baldwin grew up in Harlem, where he studied with Countee Cullen at Frederick Douglass Junior High School and graduated from the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He began preaching at the age of fourteen but fled the Church after three years, aware that it condemned him as a homosexual and aspiring secular writer. However, the experience contributed much to his intellectual formation. As he composed sermons for a Harlem congregation, he learned the use of "double voicing" by adapting the language and images of Biblical texts to black American experience. As discussed in Chapter 5, double voicing follows from the contested meanings of words as defined by different speaking collectives and contexts. In double voicing, the author's meaning finds ironic expression through the words of another (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics 202). Baldwin used this technique in "The Harlem Ghetto" (1948) and other early essays, where the ambiguous use of "we" challenged white readers to include a black author's perspective in their concept of "we." The essays established Baldwin as a commentator on black American life and double-edged informant for white readers. Other early essays, such as "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), "Preservation of Innocence" (1949), and "Many Thousands Gone" (19 51), used the book review format to probe American racial and sexual myths. In these essays, Baldwin rejected the aesthetic program of the Popular Front, specifically the protest novel and its sociological categories, which he argued merely confirm the role of victim. However, he also posed important challenges to the new criticism of the postwar era.