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James Baldwin: The FBI File

James Baldwin: The FBI File

by William J. Maxwell (Editor)


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Available in book form for the first time, the FBI's secret dossier on the legendary and controversial writer.

Decades before Black Lives Matter returned James Baldwin to prominence, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI considered the Harlem-born author the most powerful broker between black art and black power. Baldwin’s 1,884-page FBI file, covering the period from 1958 to 1974, was the largest compiled on any African American artist of the Civil Rights era. This collection of once-secret documents, never before published in book form, captures the FBI’s anxious tracking of Baldwin’s writings, phone conversations, and sexual habits—and Baldwin’s defiant efforts to spy back at Hoover and his G-men.

James Baldwin: The FBI File reproduces over one hundred original FBI records, selected by the noted literary historian whose award-winning book, F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, brought renewed attention to bureau surveillance. William J. Maxwell also provides an introduction exploring Baldwin's enduring relevance in the time of Black Lives Matter along with running commentaries that orient the reader and offer historical context, making this book a revealing look at a crucial slice of the American past—and present.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628727371
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 440
Sales rank: 291,891
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

William J. Maxwell is professor of English and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of the widely acclaimed F.B. Eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, winner of a 2016 American Book Award, and New Negro, Old Left: African American Writing and Communism between the Wars. He is also the creator and curator of the “F.B. Eyes Digital Archive,” which presents high-resolution copies of the FBI files of African American authors obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. He lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.

Read an Excerpt



1963, 1964, AND 1966

James Baldwin is the twentieth-century African American author most honored in the twenty-first. All the same, his FBI dossier begins like a common criminal case file with an envelope of graphic evidence. The first significant item in the envelope is an identifying photo of Baldwin at age thirty-nine, fresh from the success of The Fire Next Time, his now-classic reflection on the religion of the Civil Rights Movement and its Black Muslim skeptics, initially published in January 1963. Surprisingly, the FBI or another police force did not take the photo, distorted by Bureau reproduction, though later documents in the file prove that Bureau agents quietly photographed Baldwin as he protested in Selma that October. Instead, the photo was borrowed from a positive article in The Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, run as Baldwin lectured across the American South in support of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its philosophy of nonviolent but dynamic confrontation with racism. A flattering publicity portrait repurposed as a mugshot prefaces Baldwin's FBI file — not the only time the Bureau turned the tools and fruits of his literary success into investigative weapons against him.

The second item in the envelope is a copy of an impassioned 1964 fundraising letter Baldwin wrote for the Mississippi Freedom Project led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group he joined well after his student days. This highly choreographed, often mythologized voter registration project drew over a thousand out-of-state volunteers, 90 percent of them white, into contact with experienced SNCC organizers and thousands of local African American citizens risking their lives for voting rights in the summer of 1964. It also drew the FBI into the business of investigating violence against civil rights workers: after years of Bureau inaction, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy persuaded J. Edgar Hoover to probe the brutal "Mississippi Burning" murders of Freedom Project participants James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Baldwin's letter, written while the bodies of the trio were still missing, paints the Project as an existential advance and a virtuous children's crusade, "an act of faith and courage" by young men and women "that is so extraordinary that I find myself struggling for words to describe my feelings toward them." Why did the FBI find Baldwin's appeal important enough to collect through a "Confidential Mail Box" set up to receive radical publications? In part because the Bureau, unlike Baldwin's radical critics, consistently saw him as a militant protest leader as well as an influential author and commentator. Baldwin would in fact support SNCC's turn to a combative Black Nationalism in 1966. SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael's call for Black Power, Baldwin argued, harmonized with at least one respected "canon of Western thought: the self-determination of peoples." As the decade wore on, Baldwin's continued sympathy for SNCC increasingly alarmed FBI headquarters, and became one justification for his official relisting as an "Independent Black Nationalist Extremist" in 1968.

The final item in the envelope heading up Baldwin's file is another portrait photograph, this one hijacked from a 1966 version of his US passport. This second photo, just three years older than the first, reveals the FBI's determination to keep an up-to-date headshot of Baldwin at the ready, the better to identify and detain him as a security risk in times of national emergency, as other documents in the file confirm. The source of the headshot testifies to the Bureau's close coverage of Baldwin's travels as a frequent transatlantic flyer (not just the concern of the CIA, officially charged with collecting national intelligence outside the US). Baldwin's confident look at the camera and firm signature across the photo predict his efforts, unveiled elsewhere in the file, to spy on and write about the Bureau in return — to do unto the FBI, in other words, what its file had done to him. As the cultural historian Maurice Wallace sees it, Baldwin's prominent eyes staring back from his Bureau dossier reflect "an eyeballing disposition of his own."



JUNE 1961

Indexes in the file refer to stray FBI paperwork on Baldwin dating from 1958 and 1960, perhaps even from 1944, the year the apprentice author first met Richard Wright and launched the manuscript that became his debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). But the earliest complete document in the file comes from 1961 and concerns a public gathering of the Liberation Committee for Africa (LCA). This small, New York–based Pan-Africanist group is best remembered for publishing the Liberator, a leading political and cultural journal founded in response to the death of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader assassinated with help from the CIA. Baldwin became a regular Liberator contributor and lent his voice to a June 1961 LCA meeting at a Broadway hotel whose audience included an undercover FBI spy. The three-page informer's report that followed the meeting begins with a dreary account of a "heavy traffic tie-up on approaching the Lincoln Tunnel." It nears its end with a bang, however, describing "the last speaker and the most forceful of the evening," the "author of 'Go Tell It on the Mountain'" who "realyy capivtated the audience with his frech [French] accent." Despite the comic misinterpretation of the sources of Baldwin's elaborate English, not to mention the malapropisms and spelling mistakes, the informer's account succeeds in capturing the excited response to Baldwin's embrace of the African revolution. At the same time, it corroborates Baldwin's belief that CIA or FBI agents lurked whenever he addressed a crowd. The extent of the CIA's surveillance of Baldwin remains murky, but his FBI file serves as a ready record of many of his speeches on political topics in the 1960s and early 1970s. Where the FBI was concerned, chronicling these often ephemeral talks — more than a few consciously delivered in the presence of government spies — was as vital as collecting Baldwin's publications.



JULY 1961

Another cache of 1961 documents consists of digests of phone-tapped conversations between Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI) between 1934 and 1975, and a number of his followers including Malcolm X, Muhammad's most brilliant pupil, later his most disillusioned rival. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin recounts a dinner invitation to Muhammad's South Side Chicago mansion, which he accepted in part to protest the "really cowardly obtuseness of white liberals" mystified by NOI's doctrine of black self-defense. Over a simple meal and two incongruous glasses of milk (Baldwin generally preferred Scotch), Muhammad praised the writer for his televised attacks on white hypocrisy and racist violence. "[I]t seemed to him," notes Baldwin, "that I was not yet brainwashed and was trying to become myself." In the digest of NOI phone traffic assembled by Chicago FBI agents, the course of Muhammad's outreach to Baldwin is clarified. It was Malcolm X, the classified record shows, who was asked to communicate the elder leader's "best love" to Baldwin — "there was no 'Tom' in him," thought Muhammad — and who passed the author's New York telephone number on to his spiritual father. These early pages of Baldwin's file dramatize one of the perverse ironies of questionably legal Bureau eavesdropping: it could capture and preserve history in the making with rare intimacy. Hoover's Bureau largely missed this implication of its phone-tapping, of course, much as it ignored Baldwin's final rejection of NOI's political theology in The Fire Next Time. Schooled by the not-too-distant memory of the Holocaust, Baldwin concluded there that "[t]he glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another always has been and always will be a recipe for murder."




James Baldwin's third novel, Another Country, published in June 1962, represented what he called a "universal blues" rooted in the bohemian particulars of postwar Harlem and Greenwich Village. The novel's exploration of the risk of love and the greater risk of love's repression located this saving emotion in a variety of unconventional places: in bisexual and adulterous sex, in romances between blacks and whites, between jaded existentialist Americans and unstereotypically innocent Europeans. As a result, Another Country earned a place on the bestseller list, wildly mixed reviews, and numerous charges of obscenity. Correspondence in Baldwin's file from the fall of 1962 reflects the verdict of the Washington, DC, police department that Another Country might be illegally indecent. A copy of the novel was sent from the department's Morals Division to the FBI's Washington field office, whose "SAC," or special agent in charge, then sent the book up the ladder to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover's personal as well as criminological interest in obscenity was familiar to Bureau executives, but the FBI's private copy of Another Country initially languished as a sterile "specimen" in the FBI crime laboratory. Washington's SAC — the first FBI agent to be pressed into service as a ghostreader of Baldwin's work — knew enough of the history of avant-garde literature to note the many similarities between Baldwin's novel and "the 'Tropic' books by [Henry] MILLER," subjects of obscenity lawsuits in at least twenty-one US states. He knew enough of the official morality of his employer, meanwhile, to instruct that Baldwin's suspect text "need not be returned" to his office.



MAY 1963

Baldwin's FBI file, like many others on public figures, doubles as a clipping file, a collection of cut-and-pasted newspaper and magazine articles that ironically resembles the kind of scrapbook once kept by adoring fans. The earliest article saved for the Baldwin file was an opinion piece by Warren Rogers, the chief Washington correspondent of the New York Journal American, touching on the writer's meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and other civil rights intellectuals in May 1963. Baldwin had acted nothing like the flattered guest at Joseph Kennedy's New York apartment, taking the brother of the president to task for ignoring the historical differences between Irish and African Americans, not least the fact that only the latter group was "still required to supplicate and beg you for justice." Rogers panned the meeting as Kennedy's "disastrous sortie into the lofty levels of Negro intellectualism," a trying place where the likes of Baldwin, "the bitter and brilliantly articulate spokesman," had to be reckoned with — not just as equals, but as potential superiors. Kennedy, for his part, was humiliated by Baldwin's sharpness at the meeting and may have ordered a sweep of FBI records on the author. At the bottom of Rogers's article is a handwritten note by Clyde Tolson, Hoover's second-in-command at the Bureau and all-but-legal husband. "What do our files show on James Baldwin?" Tolson asked, with the answer arriving in the form of several summary reports inspiring a decade of stiffened FBI surveillance. In "Re/Member This House," an unfinished memoir written in the 1980s, Baldwin lashed back at the Kennedy-FBI nexus with a colorful image of an intimidating, cigar-chomping Bobby Kennedy carrying "an FBI file cabinet in his brain."



MAY 1963

The summary records the FBI compiled on Baldwin after his tense meeting with Bobby Kennedy were explicitly angled to supply information "of a derogatory nature." As this memo from a New York supervisor indicates, the Bureau's search for dirt concentrated on two matters: the evidence "that Baldwin is a homosexual" and that he had "made derogatory remarks in reference to the Bureau." Both uncloseted homosexuality and open criticism of the FBI were capital offenses in Hoover's extra-legal criminal code, and Baldwin was especially suspect for combining them in one super-articulate package. As we'll see, however, the FBI's effort to punish Baldwin for these sins was baffled by his willingness to defend them in writing.



JUNE 1963

Before the FBI began its notorious wiretapping of Martin Luther King in November 1963, it installed bugs — what it liked to call "technicals"— on the phones of two of his closest advisers: Stanley Levison, King's longtime sounding board and literary editor, and Clarence Jones, a Harlem-based movement lawyer and King traveling buddy who also sometimes served as Baldwin's attorney. The Jones wiretap often delivered the latest confidential news on Baldwin straight to Bureau headquarters. In this highly secret document from June 1963, excluded for years "from automatic downgrading and declassification," Hoover in turn sent the latest on Baldwin straight to the White House. Jones and Levison had discussed plans for the upcoming March on Washington with black labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Hoover reported, and had worried over the slant of a forthcoming profile of King in the white-bread Saturday Evening Post. More to the point, Jones and Levison had also talked about linking a planned Baldwin statement on the Bureau's failings in the civil rights field to one contemplated by King. Feeding Levison's worry that Baldwin was prone to "a kind of poetic exaggeration," Jones boasted that "I have seen some statements on the FBI but I have never seen one like this. He (Baldwin) is going to nail them to the wall." This account of Baldwin's intentions was never forgotten or forgiven by the Bureau, whose obvious anger forced it to assure the White House that there was no truth to the rumor "that Agents of our New York City Office" had stalked Baldwin and "attempted to enter [his] apartment." The Bureau's promise that "we have not conducted any investigation ofBaldwin" was insincere, however, given the contents of this and other documents in his FBI file. The regular appearance of Baldwin's name and voice on the Bureau's wiretaps of King's inner circle was a hidden reason why the FBI treated him as a civil rights VIP.



JUNE 1963

How did the FBI respond to Baldwin's threat to "nail [it] to the wall?" This memo from M. A. Jones, an officer of the Crime Research Section — the FBI's public relations department in all but name — counts the ways. FBI ghostwriters prepared "a suggested statement by the Director," subject to Hoover's final approval, "which can be made in the event Baldwin should make false charges against the Bureau." Other FBI agents monitored and transcribed Baldwin's television appearances, arranging for the national crime laboratory, usually associated with more serious hair- and blood-sample analysis, to record public TV programs before the invention of the DVR. Still other agents seeded anti-Baldwin stories in sympathetic newspapers, as in this clipped Daily Oklahoman column attacking the "outlandish slander" the "prominent Negro author ... had previously directed against the Federal Bureau of Investigation." (Historians have shown that the Bureau planted multiple stories — signed and unsigned — smearing Martin Luther King in the same period.) Evidence here and elsewhere in the file shows that Baldwin was a writer who inspired diverse types of FBI writing and ghostwriting. His overheard intention to attack the Bureau in print prolonged a literary back-and-forth between the FBI and African American authors first triggered when the young Hoover's Radical Division publicly slammed the young Harlem Renaissance in 1919.



JUNE 1963

Before Baldwin defeated William F. Buckley Jr., the intellectual "Father of American Conservatism," by 544 to 164 votes in a legendary (now YouTubed) debate at the Cambridge University Union in 1965, the FBI staged a contest between the two thinkers in Baldwin's FBI file. In addition to collecting less brainy pieces on Baldwin published in the national and international press, the FBI clipped and saved several of Buckley's columns elegantly railing against Baldwin's supposed goal of unconditional white surrender. In this example from June 1963, circulated among the Bureau's upper echelon, Buckley links Baldwin's "crushing hortatory eloquence" to his "raw nervous temperament" and his impossible dream of the final "evanescence of color." To Buckley's divided mind, The Fire Next Time is at bottom a "poignant essay threatening the whites." While Buckley was far more articulate than most FBI commentators about both his racial paranoia and his appreciation of Baldwin's literary gifts, his split judgment on Baldwin was not that far from the Bureau's collective opinion. Like Buckley, the creator of the National Review, the flagship journal of the modern American right, Hoover's foundational conservative institution saw Baldwin as fundamentally wrongheaded but too fluently expressive to ignore.


Excerpted from "James Baldwin The FBI File"
by .
Copyright © 2017 William J. Maxwell.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Baldwin and His File after Black Lives Matter,
Born-Again Baldwin,
Filed-Again Baldwin,
What's in — and Not in — This Edition of the Baldwin File,
Sources of Quotations in the Introduction,
James Baldwin's FBI File, Sampled and Explained,
1 Graphic Evidence: 1963, 1964, and 1966,
2 Baldwin's "Frech Accent" on African Independence: June 1961,
3 Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad Praise Brother Baldwin: July 1961,
4 Another Country as Obscene Specimen: September and October 1962,
5 "What Do Our Files Show on James Baldwin?": May 1963,
6 Baldwin as Homosexual — and Public Enemy: May 1963,
7 The White House Listens In: June 1963,
8 The Bureau Prepares Its Counterattack: June 1963,
9 Buckley versus Baldwin: June 1963,
10 Another Country's "Value to Students of Psychology and Social Behavior": June, August, and September 1963,
11 "Better Qualified to Lead a Homo-Sexual Movement than a Civil Rights Movement": September 1963,
12 Baldwin Baits J. Edgar Hoover — and Bureaucratic Hell Breaks Loose: September 1963,
13 "Negroes Are Thinking Seriously of Assassinating Martin Luther King": September 1963,
14 The Bureau Reviews The Fire Next Time: October 1963,
15 Photos of Baldwin in Selma: October 1963,
16 A Falling Out with "Sexual Proclivities": October 1963,
17 The USIA Censors Baldwin: October 1963,
18 Ask J. Edgar Hoover — Is Baldwin "A Known Communist?": October 1963,
19 J. Edgar Hoover Asks "Is Baldwin on Our Security Index?": December 1963,
20 The Biography of James Arthur Baldwin, "Security Matter": December 1963,
21 "A Dangerous Individual Who Could Be Expected to Commit Acts Inimical to the National Defense": December 1963,
22 "Hello, Baby, How Are You?" — FBI Sexual Linguistics: January 1964,
23 Baldwin Meets a Deadline: January 1964,
24 Baldwin Speaks — after "Robert Dillon [the] Beatnik Type Entertainer": January 1964,
25 Public Shaming through Public Sources: January 1964,
26 The FBI Combs Baldwin's Passport: February 1964,
27 Signifying Nothing: February 1964,
28 "An Attempt to Interview Him Could Prove Highly Embarrassing": March 1964,
29 Baldwin as COINTELPRO Audience: April 1964,
30 The Bureau Stalks Baldwin on Broadway: May 1964,
31 Baldwin and His "Aliases": June 1964,
32 The Blood Counters and Baldwin Countersurveillance, Part 1: June and July 1964,
33 The Blood Counters and Baldwin Countersurveillance, Part 2: July 1964,
34 "Isn't Baldwin a Well Known Pervert?" — Hoover Weighs In: July 1964,
35 Baldwin the Riot-Starter: July and August 1964,
36 The Blood Counters and Baldwin Countersurveillance, Part 3: August 1964,
37 Trashing Baldwin: September 1964,
38 "Baldwin Will Quit U.S. if Goldwater Wins": October 1964,
39 Citizen Literary Criticism, Part 1: Texas on Another Country: January 1965,
40 Citizen Literary Criticism, Part 2: Mississippi on Blues for Mister Charlie: April and May 1965,
41 Buckley on "The Baldwin Syndrome": June 1965,
42 Where in the World Was James Baldwin?: March, April, and October 1966,
43 Baldwin Reported to the Secret Service — the Author as Assassin: April 1966,
44 White House Visits and Name Checks: May 1966,
45 Sharing with the State Department — and the CIA: November and December 1966,
46 FBI Internationalism in Action — Baldwin Traced and Translated in Turkey: November and December 1966,
47 An Airline Source and a Pretext Interview: January 1967,
48 Bureaucratic Discipline and the "Subject's Eviction from an Apartment in Turkey for Homosexual Activities": March and April 1967,
49 Back in the USA — with a "Lookout" Waiting: September 1967,
50 Of London, Baldwin's New York "Wife," and "Foreign Auto Sales": December 1967,
51 Baldwin and Other "Independent Black Nationalist Extremists": January 1968,
52 The Bureau of Accurate Statistics: February 1968,
53 Clippers and Informers on The Life of Malcolm X: March 1968,
54 "Two Separate Films on the Life of the Subject": March 1968,
55 The Problem with Paraphrase: April 1968,
56 Baldwin the Black Panther: May 1968,
57 Truman Capote, FBI Source, and James Baldwin, "Negro": May and June 1968,
58 Returning on a Jet Plane: July 1968,
59 "Hostesses for This Party Wore Long African Style Clothes" — Baldwin Speaks for SNCC: August 1968,
60 Flying the Coop and "Presently Checking His Baggage through Customs": February and April 1969,
61 Indiscreet Book Buying: July 1969,
62 Baldwin in Other FBI Files: July 1969,
63 "Baldwin's Method of Working Is Strange": December 1969,
64 Citizen Literary Criticism, Part 3: California on The Fire Next Time: April 1970,
65 Baldwin Testifies for "Sister Angela" — and the Bureau Relaxes Its Vigil: January, May, June, and August 1971,
66 Rapping on A Rap on Race: April and September 1971,
67 From the Security to the Administrative Index: April 1972,
68 The Last Book Purchase-No Name in the Street: July 1972,
69 The Last Translation — "L'Express Continues with James Baldwin": August 1972,
70 Baldwin off the Administrative Index — The FBI Says Goodbye: March 1974,
Sources of Quotations in the Commentaries,
Index to the Introduction and Commentaries,

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