Exploring James Baldwin’s celebrity and mystery at the Beinecke

Robert Reid-Pharr
Robert Reid-Pharr (Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo)

Robert Reid-Pharr ’89 M.A., ’91 M.A./M.Phil., ’94 Ph.D. discovered writer James Baldwin long before he set foot on Yale’s campus. “I read ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ as a 14-year-old,” Reid-Pharr says. “It was the first literature that spoke to me as a black person in a conservative, black, religious family.”

Reid-Pharr, now professor of studies of women, gender, and sexuality and African and African American studies at Harvard, will give the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Lecture titled “Archives and Icons: James Baldwin and the Practice of Celebrity” at the Beinecke on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Reid-Pharr says he came to Yale — and stayed to pursue his Ph.D. — because it was one of the few programs where he could pursue a higher degree in African American studies. “At Yale, it became clear I could do the type of work I wanted to do in academia,” he says. At the time, he focused on antebellum African American fiction because, he says, “I wanted to figure out how the black writing tradition developed in the U.S.”

But after graduating, Reid-Pharr turned his attention to mid-20th-century black writers. Baldwin, he says, has always been something of a mystery.

Baldwin — author of “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), “Giovanni’s Room” (1956), “Another Country” (1962), and “The Fire Next Time” (1963) — has been hailed as one of the most significant American writers of the 20th century, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1963. But though he was called upon to represent the interests of the African American community in the U.S., he lived in Paris and was a reluctant spokesperson, Reid-Pharr says. And while Baldwin wrote some of the most important early works exploring homosexuality and was known to be gay, he always “spoke in a rhetoric that implied that he was a heterosexual person. He believed in fixed gender roles,” says Reid-Pharr.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

Two years ago, the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” brought Baldwin back to the cultural forefront. The film is based on Baldwin’s final, unfinished work, “Remember This House,” about Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King, all black activists assassinated before their 40th birthday. Last year saw the film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” about a young black couple torn by a false accusation. 

Reid-Pharr has read many of Baldwin’s letters in the Beinecke’s collection — which, he says, is second only to the Baldwin collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and is much more accessible to the public. The Beinecke’s collection includes photographs, early drafts of “Go Tell It on the Mountain, hundreds of letters, and drafts of works that were never published. Nicholas T. Boggs ’97 B.A., a clinical assistant professor of English at New York University, was an undergraduate at Yale when he discovered Baldwin’s children’s book, “Little Man, Little Man, in the Beinecke’s archives. The book, a celebration of black childhood, was published in 2018.

Despite the found materials, Baldwin will never be easily understood, Reid-Pharr says. “He’s a very complicated figure. The closer you get to the materials in the archives, the more you look at the paper, the less you know about him.”

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Fred Mamoun: fred.mamoun@yale.edu, 203-436-2643