BOOK REVIEW / Squashed into the cage of real racism: James Baldwin - David Leeming: Michael Joseph, pounds 20

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The Independent Online
IN A tribute to James Baldwin after his death, the Nigerian novelist Wole Soyinka remembered a conversation with him: 'What I recall most about James Baldwin's quite animated contributions,' Soyinka wrote, 'was the paradox of the intensity of his beliefs in the racial question, and the suppression of its inherent subjectivity for him as a black man.'

The confrontation between Baldwin's liberal humanism and his recognition of the sheer depth of black alienation in American society lies at the heart of all his work. 'Blackness and whiteness do not matter,' he wrote. 'To believe that they do is to acquiesce in one's own destruction.' Yet he felt equally deeply that race was the force that shaped every aspect of African-American life. It was, he said, 'that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth'.

He held steadfastly to the view that art should not be reduced to the level of political writing. Two of his early essays, 'Everyone's Protest Novel' and 'Many Thousands Gone', attacked fellow black novelist Richard Wright for writing protest novels. Yet Baldwin maintained an equally passionate commitment to the idea that his work should help expose and overcome racism - witness the sense of rage in Notes of A Native Son and The Fire Next Time.

Baldwin attempted to reconcile these conflicts by personalising the issue of race. He transformed the issue of local conflict into one of individual conscience. 'I toted your barge, baby,' he used to harangue his white audiences. 'I picked your cotton, I nursed your babies. You killed my children. Where were you the day Martin was shot?'

Baldwin's personalised vision of racial conflict and his ambivalence towards political commitment made his novels and essays attractive to white audiences. It also created a fraught relationship with fellow African-American writers. 'Jimmy: I fear you are becoming a 'Negro' writer,' the poet Langston Hughes sarcastically remarked in a letter to Baldwin.

The conflicts inherent in Baldwin's work make him a fascinating subject for study, for the dilemmas he articulated are those of liberal America. The fact that three biographies have appeared in the seven years since Baldwin's death is testament to the continuing relevance of his work to our age. How much more disappointing then that none of these biographies should broach in any profound way the central conflicts of Baldwin's life.

David Leeming's book is the authorised version. A close friend of Baldwin's, he was part of Baldwin's travelling entourage in the Sixties and Seventies. Leeming's closeness to his subject is a strength and a weakness. His account is a much more intimate and moving one than the previous biographies. But it is also more ponderous, for Leeming often gets lost in sheer weight of detail.

What is most disappointing is Leeming's failure to put Baldwin's life in the context of African-American history and culture or of American politics. Leeming details, for example, the disagreements between Baldwin on the one hand and Wright and Hughes on the other. But he does not consider where Baldwin's vision of black culture fits into the broader picture. Leeming catalogues Baldwin's relationship with the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Yet he gives little consideration to the dilemmas of a man who wanted to be part of the American Dream, but who realised that the dream had been constructed through the exclusion of blacks. There is still room for a fourth biography.