DURING HIS LIFETIME, James Baldwin (1924-1987) had a lot to say. His insightful observations and thoughtful, sometimes fiery, words about race, civil rights, and the American paradigm resonate 30 years after his death. The recent Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” which is based on an unpublished Baldwin manuscript, prompted renewed and more widespread interest in his books. A massive archive acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is expected to broaden understanding of the writer and public intellectual.
A treasure trove of published and unpublished manuscripts, novels, essays, telegrams, interviews, correspondence, and handwritten notes, the Baldwin Archive includes about 70 boxes—30 linear feet of personal documents, along with photographs and audio recordings. Offering an in-depth look at Baldwin’s creative process and literary, political, and personal life, the collection spans his entire career, from the 1940s until his 1987 death at age 63.
Celebrating the acquisition, eight items from the archive are currently on view at the Schomburg. “The Evidence of Things Seen: Selections from the James Baldwin Papers,” a pop-up exhibition (April 13-17, 2017), features an essay about Martin Luther King Jr., penned after Baldwin learned about the assassination of his dear friend; the 1954 play script for “The Amen Corner”; “Letter to my Sister, Ms. Angela Davis,” written in 1970 after she was arrested in New York by the FBI; and notes on painter Beauford Delaney.
The Harlem Renaissance artist painted many portraits of Baldwin. Delaney “has been referred to as the ‘spiritual father’ of James Baldwin. Delaney and Baldwin, first encountered one another when Baldwin was 15 and fostered an artistic relationship that spanned several decades. Baldwin’s France home became Delaney’s haven in the latter years of his life,” according to the Schomburg.
Delaney “has been referred to as the ‘spiritual father’ of James Baldwin. Delaney and Baldwin, first encountered one another when Baldwin was 15 and fostered an artistic relationship that spanned several decades.”
BEAUFORD DELANEY (1901-1979), “Portrait of James Baldwin,” 1945 (oil on canvas). | Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by The Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation in memory of Joseph C. Bailey and with a grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 1998
SPANNING DECADES, THE PORTRAITS are in the collections of several museums. In 1998, the Philadelphia Museum of Art brought “Portrait of James Baldwin” (1945) into its collection. The early portrait was painted when Baldwin was just 21 years old.
The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., acquired “Portrait of James Baldwin” (1965) by Delaney in 2015. Currently on view, the painting was featured in the museum’s spring 2016 magazine, where it was noted that the landmark acquisition was the institution’s “first-ever purchase of a painting by a deceased black artist.”
Artist Glenn Ligon curated the exhibition “Encounters and Collisions” at Nottingham Contemporary and Tate Liverpool. The group show featured two Delaney paintings displayed side-by-side, a full-body portrait of Baldwin paired with a bright yellow abstraction. Ligon wrote about the Delaney works for Frieze magazine.
He said: “I count Delaney and Baldwin as two of my many queer predecessors. I love Delaney’s indifference to the division between various modes of painting and his unflagging optimism, and I love Baldwin’s fierce critiques of American culture and society and his belief in the world-altering power of the bonds of love. My coaldust paintings, which use passages from Baldwin’s seminal essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ (1953), reference both men and, as Delaney did, attempt to blur the line between the figurative and the abstract.”
“I count Delaney and Baldwin as two of my many queer predecessors. I love Delaney’s indifference to the division between various modes of painting and his unflagging optimism, and I love Baldwin’s fierce critiques of American culture and society and his belief in the world-altering power of the bonds of love.” — Glenn Ligon, Frieze
At his home in New York, N.Y., James Baldwin stands before a portrait Beauford Delaney painted of him, Jan. 1, 1978. | Photo by Anthony Barboza, Getty Images
DELANEY’S PAINTINGS are a visual record, providing a sense of how Delaney viewed and observed Baldwin. The notes and essays in the archive stand to go beyond previously published writings and contribute in greater depth Baldwin’s perspective on the artist.
In notes from an essay currently on display at the Schomburg, Baldwin writes poetically about how he sees Delany’s paintings:
“…And this window was a kind of universe moaning and wailing when it rained, bitter with the thunder, hesitant & delicate with the first light of the morning & as blue as the blues when the last light of the sun (?) departed. Well, that life, that light, that miracle are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, over much more time than that, with the power to illuminate,…”
“Well, that life, that light, that miracle are what I began to see in Beauford’s paintings, and this light began to stretch back for me over all the time we had known each other, over much more time than that,…”
— James Baldwin
Almost the entire Baldwin archive is being made available to researchers immediately, save for correspondence with four of his closest confidantes. These letters, which amount to about half of the correspondence in the collection, are under a 20-year seal, according to the New York Times. Letters with the writer’s brother David Baldwin; Lucien Happersberger, a bisexual Swiss painter Baldwin once called “the one true love story of my life”; and Delaney, are among those being held back from public access, hampering for some time the ability to learn more about the subjects discussed and interactions between the two men the correspondence with Delaney will reveal.
BALDWIN WAS BORN IN HARLEM and grew up within blocks of the Schomburg. The institution described the acquisition as Baldwin returning home. The Schomburg also houses many other important collections, among them, the papers of Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansberry, and Maya Angelou—contemporaries of Baldwin.
“Baldwin’s amazing collection adds to our ever-growing holdings of writers, political figures, artists, and cultural icons across the African diaspora,” said Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center. “With the current resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s works and words, and renovation of our own spaces from the main gallery to the Schomburg Shop, the timing couldn’t be better for Baldwin to join us at the Schomburg Center.” CT
David Leeming has written about the lives of both James Baldwin (“James Baldwin: A Biography”) and Beauford Delaney (“Amazing Grace: A Life of Beauford Delaney”), in each biography, exploring the connections between the two men. Many other volumes focus on the artistic practice of Delaney. Accompanying the critically acclaimed documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro” includes James Baldwin’s notes for the project that inspired the film, published for the first time, and more than 40 black-and-white images from the film. Published by Library of America and edited by Toni Morrison, “James Baldwin : Collected Essays,” features Baldwin’s his most profound writings, including “Notes of a Native Sun” (1955), “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961), and “The Fire Next Time” (1963). Over the years, many new editions of Baldwin’s individual books have been published.
BEAUFORD DELANEY (1901-1979), “Portrait of James Baldwin,” 1965 (oil on canvas). | Chrysler Museum of Art Collection, Museum Purchase. 2015.28