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Inside the FBI Files on James Baldwin

The FBI Files

Baldwin is a literary touchstone for Black Lives Matter. A new book offers a deeper appreciation of the cost the queer black author paid for speaking truth to power.

James Baldwin: The FBI File by William J. Maxwell argues that James Baldwin isn't just the most tweeted literary authority of the Black Lives Matter movement but also the most relevant 20th-century author in our current political moment. Maxwell shows that Baldwin is the "literary conscience, touchstone, and pinup" for this generation's activists, connecting a black queer-led movement with a black queer writer whose voice reaches across generations.

Baldwin has emerged as a central figure for the Black Lives Matter era largely because he is a kind of queer father to those of us coming of age in the post-post-civil rights era, a symbol of the intersection of black art and black activism, and evidence that one can be confronted by years of state violence and still survive.

Baldwin's FBI file is excerpted and reproduced throughout the work as evidence of a witch hunt, a collage of acts of terror waged against Baldwin because he was considered a threat. Commentary by Maxwell is effectively sprinkled in to provide continuity and context. The commentary is in fact often critical, because Maxwell's observations connect the files with Baldwin's biography. Baldwin emerges as a more complex individual in the process. Even those familiar with his work will find a deeper appreciation of what he endured and the cost he paid for speaking truth to power.


In December 1969 in Istanbul, Baldwin, then 45, said he felt that "in some ways" he was the last unassassinated black leader of his generation, but added he had not withdrawn from the civil rights struggle or lost hope for the future.

Baldwin first becomes of significant interest to the FBI in 1961, when he spoke at the Liberation Committee for Africa -- in the audience was an FBI spy. Being stalked by the agency was a reoccurring experience throughout Baldwin's life. The book effectively assembles the FBI's records of Baldwin (essential reports and clips of media about him) to paint a picture of an obsessive and monstrous FBI director and an agency intent on destroying Baldwin's life.

The files read less as boring, bureaucratic, lifeless memos, and more as obsessive and paranoid recordings by Hoover and his underlings. Baldwin's sexuality was constantly scrutinized, with the agents attempting to find evidence of his suspected -- but never quite confirmed -- homosexuality. A 1966 report indicates "it has been heard that Baldwin may be a homosexual and he appeared as if he may." The impression one conjures of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is of a desperate voyeur: constantly following Baldwin, going through his garbage, listening in on his calls, attending speaking events to record what he said, reading his interviews, and most intriguingly, reading his books.

The reaction of the FBI to Baldwin's literary work is particularly interesting. Maxwell recounts a report by the Justice Department's General Crimes Section that found the novel Another Country by James Baldwin to contain "literary merit" and "may be of value to students of psychology and social behavior." This was after considerable scrutiny of the novel and consideration of whether it could even be sold and possessed legally.

Despite a lifetime being pursued by the FBI, Baldwin was never detained or interviewed. Their fear justified their pursuit, and their fear also justified their unwillingness to apprehend him. As it was pointed out in a 1964 memo, because of his platform, prominence, and involvement in civil rights, any attempt to interview him might prove to be "embarrassing." That fear ultimately saved Baldwin from more direct FBI intimidation. (Arcade Publishing)

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