New Letters Reveal James Baldwin's Emotional Turmoil During His 1957 Tour Through The American South

Feb 20, 2019

James Baldwin's tour of the American South in 1957 featured meetings with Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth. It also had a profound effect on Baldwin as a person. Up until that point, he had been living in Paris and had never visited the South. He wrote about the tour for the magazine Partisan Review. Newly uncovered letters to Baldwin's brother and his friend, Mary Painter, revealed the fear and anguish that built over his six weeks in the South.

Author Ed Pavlić wrote a series of essays on Baldwin's tour and the impact of his letters for Brick magazine called "Beyond Simplicity: The Journey Toward James Baldwin's Letter from the Birmingham Motel." Pavlić is an English and African-American studies professor at the University of Georgia. He joined "On Second Thought" to discuss how Baldwin's writings on places like Atlanta and Charlotte help people understand the South of today.

Baldwin reflected on his experiences in a 1958 article for Harper's Magazine. He wrote that the horrors of the South were previously images in literature and popular music to him, but he realized they were also part of his identity. Pavlić said the tour also showed Baldwin the power of mobilization that developed through collective and community action by black activists.

The film adaptation of Baldwin's novel, "If Beale Street Could Talk," and the 2016 documentary "I Am Not Your Negro" also bring his words to new audiences. "If Beale Street Could Talk" is nominated for three Academy Awards this year, including best supporting actress for Regina King.

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