James Baldwin’s relationship with his stepfather informs his work, and his life, by complicating his experience, comprehension, and analysis of Black masculinity.
James Baldwin was raised in Harlem with his mother and his stepfather, David Baldwin. James was the eldest son out of nine children. In his biographical article about Baldwin titled “The Enemy Within”, Hilton Als situates Baldwin tightly around his stepfather, marking David’s existence as essential to understanding James. As he moves through James Baldwin’s development as a writer and as a man, he continuously nods back to David Baldwin. “By 1948, he was no longer the ugliest boy his father had ever seen but a promising young writer who was considered very smart by the older editors he worked for” (Als). Even in marking Baldwin’s success, Baldwin biography roots James in David Baldwin.
Baldwin reaffirms Als’ negative characterization of David most notably in Notes of a Native Son, which begins with David’s death. Upon reflection, he writes, “I do not remember, in all those years, that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home” (Notes of a Native Son 65). He expresses both resentment for and unfamiliarity with his stepfather. However, as James grew as a writer and man, he began to see the roots of David’s bitterness as having “had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black— with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness, but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life” (Notes of a Native Son 64). James acknowledges that David’s struggles were due to his identity as a Black man. Being his paternal figure, this inevitably confused and frustrated James’ own conceptualization of Black masculinity.
Baldwin explores this confusion and frustration through Black male characters in his fiction. Go Tell It on the Mountain is directly reflective of James and David. In the novel, the father character, Gabriel, is identical to David Baldwin. Gabriel was a preacher, as was David. Further, the novel circulates around Gabriel’s intense, familial, and religious bitterness. Baldwin writes that his stepfather “hat[ed] and fear[ed] every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching towards the world which had despised him” (“Notes of a Native Son” 66). In a similar tone, Gabriel tells John that “white people were never to be trusted, and that they told nothing but lies-he, John- would find out as soon as got a little older, how evil white people could be” (Go Tell It on the Mountain 34). David Baldwin, and his bruised Black masculinity, informs Baldwin’s work in fiction.
In his essay titled “Nobody Knows My Name”, James reflects on a trip to the South. He writes about the potency of Southern racism against the Black men: “How many times has the Southern day come up to find that black man, sexless, hanging from a tree!” (“Nobody Knows My Name” 204). More directly, he recounts his own experience while in Atlanta, specifically with an old Black man who directed him onto his first-ever segregated bus. This man enchanted James. “His eyes seemed to say that what I was feeling he had been feeling, at much higher pressure, all his life. But my eyes would never see the hell his eyes had seen. And this hell was, simply, that he had never in his life owned anything, not his wife, not his house, not his child, which could not, at any instant, be taken from him by the power of white people…And for the rest of the time that I was in the South I watched the eyes of old black men” (“Nobody Knows My Name” 204-205). In this essay, Baldwin observes the Black man’s struggle with his own masculinity, describing his hell as having not ever been able to own anything. This struggle fascinates and saddens Baldwin. A physical reflection of both James and David, this older Black man served as a reminder for James of the realities of Black masculinity throughout recent generations— a consistent struggle with identity. As is evident in his work, his fascination resided here.