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A Criminal Power

James Baldwin and the Law

D. Quentin Miller

Publication Year: 2012

James Baldwin, one of the major African American writers of the twentieth century, has been the subject of a substantial body of literary criticism. As a prolific and experimental author with a marginal perspective—a black man during segregation and the Civil Rights era, a homosexual at a time when tolerance toward gays was not common—Baldwin has fascinated readers for over half a century. Yet Baldwin’s critics have tended to separate his weighty, complex body of work and to examine it piecemeal. A Criminal Power: James Baldwin and the Law is the first thematic study to analyze the complete scope of his work. It accomplishes this through an expansive definition and thorough analysis of the social force that oppressed Baldwin throughout his life: namely, the law. Baldwin, who died in 1987, attempted suicide in 1949 at the age of 25 after spending eight-days in a French prison following an absurd arrest for “receiving stolen goods”—a sheet that his acquaintance had taken from a hotel. This seemingly trite incident made Baldwin painfully aware of what he would later call the law’s “criminal power.” Up to now, the only book-length studies to address Baldwin’s entire career have been biographies and artistic “portraits.” D. Quentin Miller corrects this oversight in a comprehensive volume that addresses and unifies all of Baldwin’s work. Miller asserts that the Baldwin corpus is a testament to how the abuse of power within the American legal, judicial, and penal systems manifested itself in the twentieth century.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

No book, scholarly or otherwise, is written in solitude. I would like to thank some of the many people who have kept me company as I wrote A Criminal Power. David Leeming must be at the top of this list. As the man who introduced me to Baldwin’s work some two decades ago, David has been instrumental in helping me understand Baldwin. ...

List of Abbreviations of Baldwin Titles

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: “A Criminal Power”: James Baldwin and the Law

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pp. 1-16

It is December 27, 1949. James Baldwin, just released from a French prison, stands on a chair. He is sweating as he holds a sheet in his hand, and he twists it, with bitterness and desperation, into a rope. He has left his home, his church, and his country in order to discover himself. ...

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1. No Room of One’s Own

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pp. 17-44

What is the primary power of the law? This question is not as straightforward as it may seem, and the answer obviously changes with context and perspective. From the perspective of the “average, law-abiding” citizen, the law has the power to protect the populace, or to productively separate the innocent from the guilty. ...

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2. Other Countries, Hidden Laws

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pp. 45-73

The concept of interest convergence, a cornerstone of Critical Race Theory, argues that some of the most progressive-seeming acts of legislation with regard to race may actually exist not because of moral imperatives, but because there is a certain social advantage for majority groups to pass legislation that supposedly benefits minorities. ...

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3. A Criminal Power

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pp. 74-102

The peak of Baldwin’s notoriety came not during the long period of exile in France that incubated his earliest major works—Notes of a Native Son, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Giovanni’s Room—but upon his return to his beleaguered country, particularly the southern United States, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. ...

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4. Return to Exile

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pp. 103-135

Going to Meet the Man was published the year Malcolm X was assassinated. The anger, cynicism, and violence evident in that story had their counterpart in the turbulence that was overtaking the nation, and Baldwin’s response was similar to his response to racism in the pre-Civil Rights era: to return to exile, this time in Turkey. ...

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5. The Fire Reignited

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pp. 136-161

One of the common misconceptions of the law as practiced and shaped in courts is that, because its language is esoteric and even arcane, it constitutes a kind of sacred text that cannot be altered. The law is burdened with legal precedent, the citation of which becomes baffling to the average citizen ...

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Conclusion: From Death Row to the Beer Summit

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pp. 162-168

Virtually the same year Baldwin wrote “Equal in Paris,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote a pair of essays called “The Trial” and “The Acquittal” in which he details his own experience with the American judicial system, albeit in the more politicized context of the HUAC hearings. ...


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pp. 169-177

Works Cited

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pp. 178-182


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pp. 183-187

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270417
E-ISBN-10: 0814270417
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814211755
Print-ISBN-10: 0814211755

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2012