The late James Baldwin (1924-1987), author of Native Son and Go Tell It on the Mountain, among others, was a product of Harlem. It was in his bones and informed much of his writing, even though he left the New York neighborhood in his late teens.
Journalist and longtime Harlem dweller Herb Boyd has written Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin (Atria Books, 272 pages, $24).
Here's a review from the Associated Press ...
By Mary Foster
As an adult, James Bladwin — the novelist, playwright and poet of such works as Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Go Tell It on the Mountain — may have visited Harlem only intermittently, but the uptown Manhattan neighborhood always had a strong hold on him.
Boyd, himself a Harlem resident, insists that Baldwin, who left Harlem at 19, is as inextricably tied to Harlem as Charles Dickens was to London or Balzac to Paris.
‘‘To be sure, whether stated proudly or with disdain, Harlem would be a recurring theme in all of Baldwin’s works,’’ Boyd writes.
The son of a domestic worker, Baldwin grew up in poverty. His mother married a factory worker, who also was a storefront preacher, and Baldwin, who did know his father, took his stepfather’s name.
Somewhere in those bleak childhood years Baldwin became an avid reader, possibly because he had the good luck to attend P.S. 24, where he was taken under the wing of Gertrude E. Ayer, the school’s principal and Orilla Miller, a teacher.
But if Baldwin writes fondly of these women, his relationship with Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who taught Baldwin French in ninth grade, is less clear and Boyd does little to clarify it. Perhaps because Baldwin told different stories about the relationship at different times.
Baldwin may have revised his memories of Harlem and the people he knew there over the years, but the conclave was always a part of his work.
‘‘He treated it with the same brush of contradictions he used on his other subjects. For the most part though, Harlem was typecast as the lowlife harlot, consistently present in his nonfiction and only occasionally beautified in his fiction.’’
Boyd provides a look at the multiple faces of the area during Baldwin’s life. He details life in Harlem from Baldwin’s birth, when it was a multiethnic, thriving cultural hub, to its decline as one of New York’s home to drugs and urban decay.
Baldwin’s Harlem is written with a flair, as when Boyd notes the ‘‘urban tribe of hunters and gatherers looking for bottles and cans’’ who took over Harlem streets. And in the end, he reveals there is little to remind that Baldwin once lived there.
Unlike dozens of other famous artists, politicians, writers, musicians and actors, ‘‘there is no statue, no school, park place, square or street named after James Baldwin, and only one plaque that has been affixed inside P.S. 24, the first school he attended.’’
Even Scott Joplin, who lived in Harlem only briefly, has a marker outside the last place he lived, Boyd said.