James Baldwin is counted among the greatest and most influential of American authors. He died in 1987 at the age of 65, but his novels and commentary on race, sexuality, class, bigotry, and social activism continue to influence and inform discussions on these issues today. Baldwin moved to France in 1948 at the age of 24. He sought to escape the limitations and danger a young, black, gay man faced in America, and to focus fully on his writing. He would go on to live most of his life as an expatriate, though he later suggested “commuter” was a more accurate description. Despite his years abroad, Baldwin’s connection to the United States and his exploration of American identity not only endured, but strengthened.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” -Baldwin
During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of U.S. diplomats supported or attended cultural events or visits at which Baldwin spoke. Their memories of these encounters reflect the author’s international stature as an artist and activist, as well as the political and social attitudes of the time. Four USIS officers recall their experiences with Baldwin in 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Jacob Gillespie served as a USIA Rotational Officer in Accra, Ghana in 1962-63. Irving Sablosky was the Information Center Director in Hamburg 1965-68. Thomas F. Johnson was the Information Center Director in Heidelberg 1971-75. James C. Pollack was Program Manager for Foreign Policy and International Affairs Office, Washington, D.C. 1986-88. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed each man: Gillespie in 2010, Johnson in 2003, Pollock in 2002, and Sablosky in 2000.
“I had to loan the USIS library my own copies of two of his works for an exhibit in the window before he gave a talk there….”
GILLESPIE: “[Baldwin] was traveling [to Ghana] with his sister trying to write some pieces for the New Yorker that he owed them. He had already received several advances to write about Africa. He never did write about Africa, but the work he owed New Yorker became “The Fire the Next Time,” one of his greatest works. He was not traveling for the U.S. government. He was still considered “risky.” I had to loan the USIS library my own copies of two of his works for an exhibit in the window before he gave a talk there. I was asked could you set up a chance for him to talk at the University. That was very easy. I talked to a couple of professors who were delighted to have Baldwin come out and sit with about 20 students. Of course for me the real thrill of it was just joining the CAO (Cultural Affairs Officer), Bill Davis, to brief him and the drive out to the university and back and having a drink afterwards. That became important to me.”
“We were honoring James Baldwin”
[Q: 1965 to 1968 was at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States. How was that playing in Germany? I mean, were you working on that?]
SABLOSKY: “Yes, we certainly were. There was a lot of interest in it. We didn’t address it really, but allowed it to show. James Baldwin, for instance, came through Hamburg on his own and we had a reception for him at the Amerika Haus. He was somebody who had to be presented in the America Haus. We were honoring James Baldwin, and giving access to him. He spoke freely. Even radical Americans, when they are abroad, are suddenly more consciously American, and proud of it. Baldwin was not an exception. He was not crazy about the civil rights situation in the United States, but he did recognize that it was happening. Patricia Roberts Harris came through also. It wasn’t exactly easy to see that she was black, but she passed for black. She lectured for us at the Amerika Haus.” [Note: Patricia Roberts Harris was the first African-American woman to hold the rank of ambassador.]
“…Perhaps because they were critics of the administration, USIA did not sponsor [them]”
JOHNSON: “I hosted the Pulitzer Prize winning poet W.D. Snodgrass, but his appeal was limited. James Baldwin and Langston Hughes spoke before a large audience in Stuttgart. I don’t remember who invited them, but perhaps because they were critics of the administration, USIA did not sponsor the program. I attended the event which consisted mainly of give and take with the audience. Hughes was very frail and left most of the talking to Baldwin, who was at the height of his popularity and was living in Paris. I wanted to ask Baldwin why he didn’t return to the United States and participate in the civil rights struggle, but several black GIs were sitting behind me and I remembered that my car was parked a distance from the auditorium.” [Note: Baldwin traveled to the United States regularly, taking an active role in the civil rights movement.]
“Washington came back and said, ‘No, no you can’t program James Baldwin.’”
POLLOCK: “One of the things that one could do in Europe, in particular, was to exchange between countries American intellectuals, expatriate Americans, Fulbright professors, American university abroad professors, all of these individuals who would be in Europe for one set of reasons or another. …Conferences on ideas and issues could be very easily put together and staffed with American personnel to stimulate the exchange of ideas. There was a great sort of yeasting that was going on that covered all areas of U.S. society. I remember once we were holding a writers’ conference and Heiner Müller and two or three other very well recognized and award international renowned award winning writers were quite interested in meeting with Americans. Washington came back and said, “No, no you can’t program James Baldwin.” We immediately assumed that it was because of his writings and the fact that he was part of the Black Pride Movement and was critical of U.S. policies in certain areas. It turned out none of that was true. The reason why Washington didn’t want Baldwin to come over is that he was gay. So the discrimination was not because of color, it was because of sexual preference.”