Douglas Field: James Baldwin and the FBI: "Isn't Baldwin That Well Known Pervert"
An Original OutHistory Publication
On May 24th, 1964, The Washington Post ran an article about James Baldwin’s forthcoming publications. Interest in the writer had grown considerably after the success of his best-selling 1962 novel, Another Country and his polemical 1963 essay, The Fire Next Time, which became a manifesto of the Civil Rights Movement.
According to the Washington Post, Baldwin was going to publish a further four books with Dial Press. These would include Talking at the Gates, a novel set on a Southern plantation the day that slavery ended, and a book about the FBI in the South. Two months later, Baldwin was interviewed in the theatre magazine, Playbill, where he reiterated his plans to expose the Bureau’s treatment of African Americans in the South, this time calling the book Blood Counters.
James Baldwin, who would have turned ninety in 2014, never completed Talking at the Gates and there is no evidence that he even started Blood Counters but details of his proposed book about the Bureau made their way into his growing FBI file, which was active between 1960 and 1974.
As James Campbell, one of Baldwin’s biographers has documented, Baldwin’s FBI files, which would grew to 1,884 pages, “included details of Baldwin’s education, military status, residences past and present, criminal record … publication history, bank records, and every other detail of his behaviour and opinions that could be unearthed.”
According to James Lesar, a tireless crusader for the Freedom of Information Act, Baldwin’s files “were not compiled for law enforcement purposes”; instead, they represented “a compendium of every piece of gossip that the FBI picked up through wiretaps and other sources that relate to Baldwin, but none of it relates to illegal activity.”
Although Baldwin endured relentless surveillance, the Bureau’s findings are remarkable for their basic mistakes, which raise important questions about the competency of the FBI’s intelligence gathering at a time of international and domestic unrest. For example, Baldwin is incorrectly labelled as “communist” (FBI Files, 1052); his date of birth is frequently wrong, and one report even notes that they cannot find a record of his birth, perhaps because the Bureau had not established that the author was born James Jones. Baldwin the “Boston-novelist” (FBI Files, 1010) is listed as the author of Go Tell It to the Mountain (FBI, Files 51) and Another World (FBI Files, 1505), and another file reports on how he spoke about his “boyhood in the South,” which is unlikely given that he was born and raised in Harlem (FBI Files, 60). In 1967, when Baldwin was at the height of his fame, reports abound claiming that the author’s sister, Paula, was his wife.
Though Baldwin was a self-described “disturber of the peace,” it is not immediately clear why he was placed on the Security Index, alongside other “dangerous individuals” who “posed a threat to national security,” although a memorandum in 1972 offers some clues: “It is believed that the subject, due to his position as an author, is likely to furnish aid or other assistance to revolutionary elements because of his sympathy and/or ideology” (my emphasis, FBI Files, 1595). Here the Bureau’s emphasis on Baldwin’s role as a writer—with the corollary that an author is, by default, radical—says much about the FBI’s concerns that authors posed a significant threat to the stability of the social order during the radical period of the 1960s and early 1970s.
As Natalie Robins has documented, the Bureau’s long-serving director, J. Edgar Hoover, remained convinced that writers could become “Communist thought-control relay stations,” because “they were more susceptible to radical propaganda than ordinary people, and more adept at communicating ideas.” Robins’s thorough study, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on the Freedom of Expression, shows the extent of the Bureau’s monitoring of writers from Truman Capote (110 pages), John Steinbeck (94 pages) to Henry Miller (9 pages) and Richard Wright (276 pages). Given this range of surveillance on noted authors, Baldwin’s file seems particularly long.
Meeting with Robert Kennedy
Baldwin’s increasing notoriety, and even celebrity status—which included appearing on the front cover of Time magazine in 1963—no doubt contributed to his surveillance by the FBI, but it was meeting with the Attorney General that alerted Hoover to his radical potential. On May 24th, 1963, Robert Kennedy met Baldwin and a diverse cohort of artists, actors and activists, including the actor and activist Harry Belafonte, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark, Martin Luther King’s lawyer, Clarence Jones and Jerome Smith, a freedom fighter, who had “probably spent more months in jail and been beaten more often than any other CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] member.” According to the New York Times, the meeting “was seen as evidence of growing concern over criticism voiced by Negroes across the country on its handling of the civil rights issue." 
As James Campbell notes, Baldwin became a frequent critic of the FBI, accusing the Kennedy administration of “lack of action” after the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black girls were killed. One FBI report records Baldwin’s statement in the New York Times of September 19th, 1963 that “I blame J. Edgar Hoover in part for events in Alabama. Negroes have no cause to have faith in the FBI” (FBI Files, 106). Baldwin’s shifting rhetoric in the early to mid-1960s confused the FBI, which notes that “Baldwin is against all forms of violence and shedding of blood.” Elsewhere they make note of the author’s “dangerousness” (FBI Files, 308). His FBI observers were perhaps picking up on the shift in the writer’s register, which became increasingly embittered as the civil rights movement became bloodier. Baldwin, who had urged his nephew in The Fire Next Time to accept white people “and accept them with love,” now announced that “many people, even members of my own family … would think nothing of picking up arms tomorrow,” which no doubt led to increased monitoring of the writer For Baldwin, who declared in 1969, that “You’ve got to get rid of J. Edgar Hoover and the power that he wields,” it was the Bureau itself that needed monitoring as his experiences of harassment and violation make clear.”
Voyeurism, Baldwin and the FBI
In The Devil Finds Work (1976) Baldwin recollects being accosted by two agents in 1945, although there is no corresponding record in his files. Noting that his color had already made him “conspicuous,” Baldwin concludes that the FBI “frightened me and they humiliated me—it was like being spat on, or pissed on, or gang-raped.” Baldwin recollects that encounter with the Bureau as a metaphorical sexual violation, associated with his racial identity. This surveillance was orchestrated by, as Baldwin described him, “J. Edgar Hoover, history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur.” Baldwin’s words reduce the Bureau’s monitoring of its subjects to little more than a prurient gaze. Baldwin suggests that Hoover’s surveillance serves no purpose other than to expose his subjects’ racial or sexual identities for sinister reasons. In Baldwin’s recollection from 1945, Hoover, as emblem of the FBI, is transformed from prurient voyeur to sinister perpetrator, underscoring, as Maurice Wallace has noted, “the spectacular conditions of historical black masculine identity and the chronic effort to ‘frame’ the black male body, criminally and visually, for the visual pleasures of whites.” As Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy note, the themes of vision and power reverberate in African American literature because they operate “in the intersubjectivity of looking relations, the sexualising and racialising of vision, the sighting of the body as spectacle, the production of surveillance, and the authorisation of images.”
While Baldwin’s description of being accosted by the FBI underscores the ways in which he felt violated and sexualised by the (presumably) white male agents, his openness about his own sexuality and his readiness to address the topic openly in his fiction seemed to disarm the FBI, who had no leverage to blackmail a writer who was already openly homosexual. While information about Baldwin’s “homosexual parties” in Istanbul underscores the Bureau’s international monitoring of its targets—and gives credence to William Maxwell’s claim that the FBI became “a pioneering archivist of black internationalism…” the scant information reveals little that wasn’t publicly known about the author. One FBI file reports that a female informant: [See FBI file 651]
According to Natalie Robins, “The FBI was as interested in Baldwin’s writing as it was in his life,” but in fact there are surprisingly few mentions of the writer’s work, and there are notable omissions. There is no discussion of Giovanni’s Room (1956), for example, despite its theme of homosexuality, even though “deviant sexuality” was directly connected to national security concerns during the Cold War era. For the most part, descriptions of Baldwin within his file reveal more about the FBI than about Baldwin himself. They provide insights about the FBI’s modus operandi and turn our gaze back to the voyeuristic reach of the Bureau’s surveillance.
Ten Entries on Baldwin's Homosexuality
While the ten entries on Baldwin’s homosexuality are intrusive, unnecessary and often derogatory, they are surprisingly brief. The first mention of Baldwin’s sexuality is a file on May 29th, 1963, where it is noted that “[i]nformation has been developed by the Bureau that BALDWIN is a homosexual,” adding, as if the two points were connected, that he also “made derogatory remarks in reference to the Bureau” (FBI Files, 69). Since the 1940s, it had been common to link leftism and critique of government policies with homosexuality, as in the frequently used term, “pinko,” which implied that a person not only had communist sympathies but was also “effete,” a euphemism for homosexuality.
FBI agents’ descriptions of Baldwin reveal their assumptions about how a homosexual was supposed to behave, as in the following entry, which also illustrates the Bureau’s use of gossip and rumor: [See FBI file 591]
J. Edgar Hoover’s personal interest in Baldwin’s sexuality extended to the director adding handwritten notes to the author’s growing FBI files, which included the following marginalia: “Isn’t Baldwin a well known pervert.”
It’s not immediately clear whether Hoover concludes his scrawl with a question mark. Is Hoover asserting that Baldwin’s a “pervert,” or asking his FBI colleagues for evidence? Yet this comment, written on the margins of the typed memorandum, was not just a personal note or a rhetorical musing: Hoover’s words precipitated a measured response from an unnamed FBI agent: [See FBI File 1259]
The interest in Baldwin’s sexual activity—and accompanying assumption that perversion is a synonym for homosexuality—illustrates another way in which the Bureau investigated beyond a subject’s political life, scrutinizing people for what they saw as moral or immoral behavior. While this particular report on Baldwin at least has the merit of not conflating an author’s fictional writing with a straightforward biographical reading, it raises the question of how far Baldwin’s sexuality fueled further surveillance. Did Baldwin’s sexuality prompt intensified federal investigation?
While Baldwin’s sexuality clearly added to the FBI’s interest in the writer, it also enabled the Bureau to damage his reputation as a civil rights spokesman. There is a transcript of a wiretap in which Barry Levison, one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s advisors, is reported to have claimed that Baldwin and Bayard Rustin were “better qualified to lead a homo-sexual movement than a civil rights movement” (FBI Files, 104). Similarly, an informant reports that Clarence Jones, a lawyer, friend, and advisor to Martin Luther King, had fallen out with Baldwin in 1963, and had said that “Baldwin’s sexual propensities had been known,” with the corollary that this would damage the civil rights movement (FBI Files, 124).
Race and Sexuality
While the FBI did not, surprisingly, focus on Baldwin’s sexuality, knowledge of (or at least conjecture about) his queerness directly hindered Baldwin’s role as a spokesman for civil rights issues. This raises important questions about the relationship between race and sexuality in the mid- to late 1960s. Evidence of how Baldwin’s sexuality undermined his authority as a racial spokesman is clearly illustrated in an issue of Time magazine published in May 1963. While the photograph of Baldwin on the cover testifies to a politically engaged African-American writer at the height of his success, the article overtly undermines his authority as a racial spokesman. It emphatically states that Baldwin is “not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader.” It also emphasizes Baldwin’s effeminacy as a euphemism for homosexuality: Baldwin is described as a “nervous, slight, almost fragile figure, filled with frets and fears. He is effeminate in manner, which underscores the ways in which the US media operated to undermine his suitability as key player in the Civil Rights Movement.”
James Campbell stresses: “In the most ruthless reading of the facts, it is possible to conclude that Hoover succeeded in his campaign against Baldwin,” citing how the author left the U.S. “at the height of his influence and at a crucial turning in the struggle for civil rights.” But Baldwin’s growing reputation as a writer and activist suggest the ways in which the FBI’s attempts to nullify the writer’s influence failed spectacularly.
In his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American” (1959), Baldwin observed that “Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception.” He added: “it is up to the American writer to find out what those laws and assumptions are.” From the 1940s to the 1980s, Baldwin exposed the moral bankruptcy of the American legal system alongside the more sinister “hidden laws” which govern U.S. assumptions about class, race, and sexuality. One of Baldwin’s most enduring legacies lies in his inimitable way of dismantling terms -- black, white, gay, straight--that have become entrenched in the English language. In a statement that might have been directed productively at Hoover, Baldwin asserts: “Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires.”
Text and Research by Douglas Field.
Copyright (©) by Douglas Field, 2014. All rights reserved.
Douglas Field lectures in twentieth century American Literature at the University of Manchester. He is the author of several books on James Baldwin, the latest of which is All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin (Oxford UP, 2015). He is the co-founding editor of the James Baldwin Review and he is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.
OutHistory is grateful to Douglas Field for volunteering this original essay, and to Matthew Brim for his assistance.
- Baldwin’s FBI files can be requested under the United States Freedom of Information Act by writing to the Bureau. Unlike many authors, including Richard Wright, Baldwin’s files are not available online. The FBI files are paginated but are not chronological. Baldwin’s files are divided into three sections: part 1: 1-559; part 2: 560-943; part 3: 944-1884. The FBI file’s pagination of Baldwin’s files will be referenced parenthetically in the essay. For information about how to request Baldwin’s FBI files, see: https://www.muckrock.com/foi/united-states-of-america-10/fbi-files-on-james-baldwin-9724/
- James Campbell, “‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine:’ James Baldwin and the FBI,” in Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2008), p. 78.
- Campbell, “‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Syncopations, p. 100.
- Baldwin originally took the surname of his mother, Emma Berdis Jones as his father’s identity was unknown. He changed his surname after his mother married David Baldwin in 1927.
- The titles of Baldwin’s books were of course Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) and Another Country (1962).
- Natalie Robins, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on the Freedom of Expression (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 50.
- For a study that focuses on the FBI’s harassment of musicians, see John Potash, The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders: US Intelligence’s Murderous Targeting of Tupac, MLK, Malcolm, Panthers, Hendrix, Rappers & Linked Ethnic Leftists. Foreword by Pam Africa with Mumia Abu-Jamal; afterword by Fred Hampton, Jr. (New York: Progressive Left Press, 2010; 5th ed.). Potash argues that “evidence supports that US Intelligence murderously targeted political and cultural leftist leaders, including Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Black Panthers, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and activist rappers,” 1. There is a brief discussion of Richard Wright (177) but no mention of Baldwin.
- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York: Ballantine Books, 1978), p. 331.
- Laymond Robinson, “Robert Kennedy Consults Negroes Here About North,” New York Times (25 May, 1963), p. 1, col. 6.
- Campbell, “‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Syncopations, p. 77.
- Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time,” in Toni Morrison (ed.), James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 294; Campbell, “‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Syncopations, p. 77.
- Eve Auchinloss and Nanc Lynch, “Disturber of the Peace: James Baldwin—An Interview,” in Standley and Pratt (eds.), Conversations with James Baldwin, p. 101.
- Baldwin, “The Devil Finds Work,” Collected Essays, p. 547.
- Ibid., p. 544.
- Maurice Wallace, “‘I’m not Entirely What I Look Like:’ Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and the Hegemony of Vision; or, Jimmy’s FBEye Blues” in Dwight A. McBride (ed.), James Baldwin Now (New York and London: New York University Press, 1999), 300.
- Balshaw, Maria and Liam Kennedy. Eds. Urban Space and Representation (London: Pluto, 2000), 8.
- See, for example, Joseph J. Firebaugh, “The Vocabulary of ‘Time’ Magazine,” American Speech 15, 3 (October 1940): 232-242.
- William Maxwell, “African-American Modernism and State Surveillance,” in Gene Jarrett (ed.), A Companion to African American Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), Maxwell, 255.
- ]Natalie Robins, Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression (New York: Rutgers University Press, 1993), p. 347.
- See David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). Johnson points out that during the “Lavender Scare” many homosexual men and women were targeted as security risks on account of their sexuality.
- See, for example, Joseph J. Firebaugh, “The Vocabulary of ‘Time’ Magazine,” American Speech 153 (October 1940): 232-242.
- “Races: Freedom—Now,” Time 81, no. 20 (May 17 1963): 26; see also Jean François Gounard, The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, trans. Joseph J. Rodgers, Jr., foreword by Jean F. Béranger (London & Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1992), who notes that Baldwin’s upbringing gave him “an unpredictable temperament. It made him a sensitive and nervous person. Thus the slightest event could have surprising effects on him” (149-50); see also Calvin C. Hernton, White Papers For White Americans (New York: Doubleday, 1966), who writes that it “is immensely revealing that the first Negro to get his face on a full page of the very feminine Harper’s Bazaar (April 1963) is James Baldwin” (120).
- James Baldwin, “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American,” Collected Essays, p. 142.
- Baldwin, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Collected Essays, p. 828.