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How a trip to D.C. helped James Baldwin affirm his Southern identity

James Baldwin in New York in 1963. (Dave Pickoff/AP)
5 min

“What part of the South does James Baldwin come from?” a reader named Helga Schneider, of Munich, Germany, wrote to Negro Digest in December 1963. It was a reasonable question: Baldwin himself had said he was “a Southerner” earlier that year.

But until 1955, the year that initiated the civil rights movement, one of its most salient voices had never traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line. His visit that year to D.C. would prove transformational.

Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924 and moved to France in 1948. With the release of the semi-autobiographical bestseller “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 1953, he had the resources to become what he called a “transatlantic commuter,” living between Europe and the United States. So in early 1955, when Howard University professor Owen Dodson invited Baldwin to assist with the premiere production of Baldwin’s first play, “The Amen Corner,” the 30-year-old embarked on a revelatory journey toward his Southern roots.

At Howard, Baldwin got his first taste of U.S. college life and met numerous people who would become lifelong friends. One, the pipe-smoking professor and poet Sterling Brown, would become a mentor. Brown defended Baldwin when members of the Howard community questioned his understanding of the South.

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Baldwin was a child of the Great Migration, raised by a mother from Maryland and a father from Louisiana, though the South, with its history of lynchings and racist justice, had “always frightened” him. But as he shared his fears with Brown, Baldwin came to realize that the South, by and large, was “also a part of my identity.” Brown told him, “You’re just one generation away from the South, you know.”

As the late Cheryl A. Wall noted in “Women of the Harlem Renaissance,” “members of Baldwin’s parents’ generation established social organizations in the North that maintained relationships among migrants premised on links to communities in the South.” Though his baptism into the theater was a success, being viewed as a disconnected Northerner struck a chord that he would begin to work through by the end of the decade.

But first, Baldwin would return to Europe, where he would finish his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room.” On a walk in Paris with a group that included Richard Wright, Baldwin recalled noticing a front-page photo of Dorothy Counts wading through a hostile mob to desegregate a Charlotte high school. For Baldwin, who had attended an integrated public high school in New York, observing the violent backlash against school desegregation from abroad produced a combustible mixture of feelings that ignited in him a desire to take on a more active role in the civil rights movement. (Scholar Ed Pavlić has noted incongruities in Baldwin’s timeline here, but regardless, there was something kindling inside Baldwin.)

He needed to return home. In 1957, he embarked on a tour of the South, from Washington to Alabama.

In two essays published in 1958 and 1959 about that trip, Baldwin painted a sobering picture for Northerners of Southern life. On the eve of the sit-in movement and Freedom Rides, Baldwin wrote that “what is happening in the South today will be happening in the North tomorrow.”

Those essays were published in Baldwin’s 1961 collection “Nobody Knows My Name.” After it came out, the Chicago-based Negro Digest reprinted an article by journalist Margaret Leonard Long, a White Georgian, who lambasted the perceived fad of Black writers bleakly exposing the South. “James Baldwin,” she wrote, “plunges the white Southerner into wretched shock somewhat alleviated by hot surges of indignant identity with Negroes.” Baldwin, she argued, “ought to come on back home” and actually live in the South, noting that “his Deep South origins and happen-so birth in Harlem are sufficient for any ancestor-worshiping Southerner to claim him as rightfully our own.”

The most definitive and clarifying statement on his Southern heritage and identity occurred in an interview with renowned psychologist and fellow Harlemite Kenneth B. Clark the following year.

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In May 1963, Baldwin sat down with Clark for a public television interview. When Clark asked Baldwin about his background, he opened with his birth at Harlem Hospital and the first home he remembered. Then he added, “I am, in all but technical legal fact, a Southerner. My father was born in the South … my mother was born in the South, and if they had waited two more seconds, I might have been born in the South.”

Baldwin’s affirmation of this identity completed the journey that began during his time at Howard, when he was dismissed as an uninformed Northerner. As an ascendant voice during turbulent times, he set the record straight as to why he was so invested in the struggles of the South. His proclamation also spoke to the world of cyclical poverty inherited by the children of Southern migrants born in the North, dispelling notions that life was magically better above the Mason-Dixon Line. Despite his initial apprehensions about the South, he asserted a heritage that ultimately imbued him with the region’s language and spirit.

Blake Rogers Wilson is a Virginia-born, D.C.-based historian and PhD candidate for U.S. history at Howard University.