Speed Reading

Pub date July 8, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


By Herb Boyd


272 pages


Herb Boyd’s Baldwin’s Harlem is a successful primer on James Baldwin’s work and a well-researched travelogue through the history of ever-changing Harlem. But it’s also something more.

When Boyd, an accomplished journalist for the Amsterdam News in Harlem, was approached to write a biography of a native son and his native soil, it probably seemed like an apt placement. And therein lies the rub.

In the book’s preface, Boyd writes that he "felt a pressing need to defend [Baldwin] from some of those writers and critics who seemed to relish bashing him with each new publication, or renouncing him for being less than totally committed to the struggle for Black liberation." He then proceeds to relish in a similar type of bashing and renouncing — in this case, connected to sexual liberation.

Over the course of Baldwin’s prolific writing career, he had more beef than 50 Cent and LL Cool J combined. Baldwin may have possessed a postmodern understanding of beef as a way to gain notice, a knowledge employed later by the aforementioned rappers. Boyd continues this legacy by excoriating Baldwin (and the word excoriate). He does this through off-hand commentary wedged between well-researched biographical and bibliographical elements. These comments reveal more about the biographer’s none-too-flattering personal opinion than they do his subject’s life. One striking example occurs when Boyd describes a young Baldwin’s sexual deflowering by an older tough as his being "turned out." The homophobic contempt in that chapter alone taints Boyd’s portrait of Baldwin. Being a black writer from New York is simply not enough to give James Baldwin the justice he deserves.