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  • Baldwin’s Boys
  • Michele Elam (bio)

“Whose little boy are you?”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin describes once how, as a teen, he was greeted by a renowned black female pastor with the question “whose little boy are you?” As Baldwin—then just a schoolboy—puts it: “Now this, unbelievably, was precisely the phrase used by pimps and racketeers on the Avenue when they suggested, both humorously and intensely, that I ‘hang out’ with them” (1985, 343). The question links for him the “spiritual seduction” that occurred before “any carnal knowledge,” and links then also, those street hustlers with the “church racket.” But, touchingly, his reminiscence does not so much highlight the similar métier of pastors and pimps—with their nearly indistinguishable efforts to convert innocents—as it does this boy’s profound need to belong. “I unquestionably wanted to be somebody’s little boy,” he writes, so “when the pastor asked me, with that marvelous smile, ‘Whose little boy are you?’ my [End Page 17] heart replied at once, ‘Why, yours’” (1993, 29). This boy, with his deep longing to be claimed, is representative of both the fragility and disenfranchisement of black men and boys in America, adolescents in that brief, liminal state that Baldwin finds so precious and perilous, for, as he often points out, that twilight is the beginning of the end: it is when they first apprehend that the street or the church are the only places where society allows them some realization of their potential. And yet that child is also something more to Baldwin. This boy (poignantly here, the author as child) is but one of many children that Baldwin describes in his writing who can only be saved (spiritually, politically, physically) by a communal sense of responsibility to one another. They stand as reminders that society is beholding—that is, to hold dear—its every member. For Baldwin, children represent the long continuum of that membership, from cradle to grave, a membership that, as Baldwin argued in his 1979 speech at the University of California at Berkeley, must be an assumed given, not a right to seek (Burch 2008). Their youth represents one’s useable past (in this case, Baldwin’s own), one’s future (progeny that hold the promise of life beyond one’s own) and, indeed, the prospects of the nation (“the last best hope of earth” as he puts in The Evidence of Things Not Seen [1985a, 25]). “And now you must survive,” Baldwin tells his nephew in “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” “because we love you, and for the sake of your children and your children’s children” (1963, 335). In that regard, given the persistence of what Orlando Patterson (1985) calls “natal alienation” among those once-enslaved—as Baldwin put it, “I was born dead” (Campbell 2002, 3)—being able to claim a past, present or future is no small matter, and so being “somebody’ s boy” is nothing less than a challenge to the historical and political condition of black people. For this reason, although they can be disappeared, or murdered, or “menaced,” to use one of his favored terms, I argue that Baldwin’s boys are absolutely key to understanding just how, as he puts it in The Fire Next Time, it is possible for the sake of our children to “change the history of the world” (Baldwin 1993, 105).

It is striking to realize how often boys figure in Baldwin’s work. He never had his own children but they certainly populate both his imagination and his politics. When I mentioned my interest in Baldwin’s return again and again to the subject of children with his niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, in 2014 at the [End Page 18] inaugural events for New York City’s “Year of James Baldwin,” she told me emphatically how important they were to him, how people outside the family did not seem to fully appreciate how central they were to his heart, his politics, and his imagination. Whether it is his nephew addressed in “My Dungeon Shook,” the many, many children filled with darkness in...


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pp. 17-30
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