THE BBC doesn’t do atheism – unless it’s forced to. And then only through gritted teeth. This again became apparent a few weeks back during an edition of Radio 4’s Great Lives devoted to the celebrated US essayist and novelist, James Baldwin, above, who died in 1987.
Baldwin was nominated by “financial guru” Alvin Hall, the guest on Matthew Parris’s programme. At the outset he said he’d been inspired by Baldwin’s conversion to Christianity when he was 14 years old. Hall himself had “a religious experience” at a revivalist meeting when he was the same age.
“Apparently the Holy Spirit descended on me and a conversion had taken place . . . this is almost exactly what happened to Baldwin in his church in Harlem.”
This immediately gave the impression that Baldwin was a man of faith. In fact, Baldwin claimed to have been “hurled into the church” by a strict stepfather who was a Pentecostal preacher, and he grew to became an outspoken critic of Christianity. But Hall, later in the programme, merely said “he became sceptical about religion”, and it infuriated me that some of Baldwin’s choicest quotes were never aired.
Quotes like “Christianity has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty – necessarily, since a religion ordinarily imposes on those who have discovered the true faith the spiritual duty of liberating the infidels” and “If the concept of God has any validity or use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”
Most of Baldwin’s work deals with racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century United States. His novels are notable for the personal way in which they explore questions of identity as well as for the way in which they mine complex social and psychological pressures related to being black and homosexual. After earning a scholarship in 1945 and publishing his first major essay, The Harlem Ghetto, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he spent most of his life.
He published his best-known work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953, and wrote numerous novels, essays, and poetry during his life, including Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), a novel noteworthy for bringing complex representations of homosexuality and bisexuality to a reading public with empathy and artistry.
He also wrote the plays The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), both well received.
Much of his work was inspired by 20th-century social movements as well as his experiences living as a poor, black, and homosexual man in a country that largely shunned these characteristics.
For a while, Baldwin returned to the United States to assist the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement, for which he became a voice, and he gained international prominence as a writer and civil rights activist.
He earned the George Polk Award in 1963 and was inducted into La Légion D’Honneur, the prestigious French order, in 1986. He continued writing and maintained a professorship at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts until his untimely death from stomach cancer at the age of 63.