The fiction writer, essayist, and activist James Baldwin (New York 1924-1987 Saint‒Paul‒de‒Vence, France), was, for part of the 20th-century, the better known of these two friends. Because Baldwin’s career was long, his writing prolific (by some reckonings, more that 6800 pages), and his status as a cultural figure iconic, the literature about him and his work is vast and includes his own nonfiction essays about his life. Scholarship on James Baldwin’s life and writing is flourishing today, with international conferences, entire journals, and books solely devoted to his life and work.
Baldwin’s reputation as a writer was augmented by his prominence as a speaker; an “out” gay man and a voice of Black radical resistance, he also became a prominent national activist during the US Civil Rights era. Many see his writing as fundamentally relevant today to Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA, and other social justice struggles. For example, Darryl Pinckney has noted that a new book edited by the novelist and memoirist Jesmyn Ward and rehearsing the title of one of Baldwin’s texts, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, “originated in her search for community and consolation after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012,” and quotes her as noting, “I couldn’t fully satisfy my need for kinship in this struggle. . . . In desperation, I sought James Baldwin. [. . .] Baldwin was so brutally honest.” In 2015, digital sound artists Mendi and Keith Obadike created Blues Speaker [For James Baldwin], a 12-hour work of sound art based on Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” (1948), his most anthologized work. The digital work is modelled on “Praise Songs” after the classical African mode and digitally renders sound in an architectural surrounding—the actual walls of the New School’s University Center in New York City. These and other projects attest to an urgent return to Baldwin’s work today.
But the archive of Baldwin’s letters had been sealed by his estate for many years and was purchased and made available to scholars only recently by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in NYC. We are, as a result, right now in the midst of a renaissance concerning Baldwin’s writing. As Jennifer Schuessler notes, “James Baldwin died in 1987, but his moment is now. His books are flying off the shelves. He has inspired homages like Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me. Baldwin’s prophetic essays on race read like today’s news.”
There is to date no full-length study about Baldwin and Delaney as artists and friends, but one can mine the primary and secondary sources for references. Baldwin’s short story collection Going to Meet the Man (1965) is dedicated to Delaney, and Delaney is included in the dedication to Baldwin’s No Name in the Street (1972). Baldwin found in Delaney a father figure, an artistic genius, and model of perseverance as a Southern gay man of color; he called Delaney his “principle witness.” Baldwin wrote eloquently of the older painter in his 1985 essay “The Price of the Ticket”: “Beauford was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my Master and I as his Pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.” Notably, in his remembrances, Baldwin aligned Delaney with both light and music: “I learned about light from Beauford Delaney, the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face. […] and this light held the power to illuminate, even to redeem and reconcile and heal. For Beauford’s work leads the inner and the outer eye, directly and inexorably, to a new confrontation with reality. […] he is a great painter, among the very greatest.”
Baldwin writes of the first time he walked into Delaney’s studio: “I had grown up with music, but, now, on Beauford’s small black record player, I began to hear what I had never dared or been able to hear. [… I]n his studio and because of his presence, I really began to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller. [. . .] And these people were not meant to be looked on by me as celebrities, but as a part of Beauford’s life and as part of my inheritance.” In a 1976 interview with Esquire, Baldwin noted that “the most important person in my life [as a writer] was and is a very great but not very well-known Black painter named Botha [sic] Delaney.”
One sees glimpses of Delaney in photographs throughout the biographical film about Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket, which premiered at Sundance in 1970. And Joan Dempsey has written convincingly that the main mentor figure in Baldwin’s most famous and anthologized short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” first published in The Partisan Review in 1957 and republished in 1965 in his only short story collection, Going to Meet the Man, is Beauford Delaney. Because Baldwin’s own essays point us in this direction, the connection between Delaney and Baldwin through jazz is often mentioned in secondary studies as a passing observation—with the exception of David Leeming’s authoritative biography of Baldwin, which deals with the friendship extensively. Other Baldwin biographies usually build off Leeming’s work. Such discussions have deepened to some degree as Delaney comes back on to the arts scene and theories such as queer-of-color and critical race studies open up new platforms for considering the men’s identities and relationships. But for the most part, the Baldwin/Delaney relationship is mentioned only in passing or as a biographically important detail; no study exists that fleshes out and historicizes the important artistic re-visioning that this relationship may have had for both artists or how their relationship—a new kind of father/son relation between Black men who together produced some of the most important work of the mid-twentieth century—may revise how we understand Black masculinity or the development of postwar Black aesthetics.