James Baldwin on Beauford Delaney
James Baldwin has been on many people’s minds as this country—and the world—finally begins to reckon with and address the long-term effects of bigotry and brutality against BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities everywhere. Baldwin was a political force in his time, but also an artist in his own right. In early 2019, we were fortunate enough to host an exhibition dedicated to Baldwin’s influence on, and dialogue with, visual artists, curated by one of the great writers and thinkers of our time on race, identity, and privilege: Hilton Als.
Hilton found in Baldwin a fellow creative spirit, just as Baldwin found kindred spirits among the artists who surrounded him. One of these was the great painter, Beauford Delaney, a formative mentor for Baldwin who, like him, was also Black and gay. “Beauford,” Baldwin wrote, “was the first walking, living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.”
To celebrate both as part of our weekend series of book excerpts, we are sharing Baldwin’s intimate essay on Delaney, which Hilton excerpted in his exhibition. We are also thrilled to have a new introduction to that essay—and to Baldwin’s approach to art more broadly—from Hilton himself. We hope these pieces illuminate their experiences as artists in America.
* * *
Growing up and as an artist, Baldwin had a great interest in masks—the masks of blackness and maleness, the various roles we appropriate or condemn the better to define ourselves.
So much of this begins with his father, David. David Baldwin is a significant figure in a lot of Baldwin’s most emotional and personal texts. In his book about movies, The Devil Finds Work, he said he had written too much and too little about this man who was not his biological father.
For most of his adult life, David Baldwin was a Baptist minister. As a man, James Baldwin said that he didn’t understand what his father must have seen growing up in Louisiana, the horror of lynchings, segregation, and forced labor, until he went South himself. Many years ago, I wrote an essay for a book about lynching photography in America. People actually sent postcards and collected this horror, and the project was so upsetting that I didn’t keep a copy of the book for myself.
I felt it was important, though, for us to see what David Baldwin had seen, and the lynching photographs I included show something devastating that affects the mind in profound ways, a black man about to be lynched. The images are about the preparation of a holocaust, in effect. And when David Baldwin left Louisiana, and Baldwin’s mother, Berdice, left Maryland, they were fleeing the kind of world where this was a given, not an exception.
David Baldwin was a native of Louisiana who marginalized his eldest adopted son by calling him ugly and treating him with scorn. How to make art out of that, because all art grows out of love or need? How to deal with David Baldwin and the legacy of ugliness that he passed on to his son, who, thank God, drew a line between accepting his father’s scorn and trying to remake his body as something free of that? These are the questions James Baldwin, the artist, tried page after page after page to answer.
—Hilton Als, based on his introduction to the exhibition God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, at David Zwirner, New York, last year.
I learned about light from Beauford Delaney, the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face. Many years ago in poverty and uncertainty, Beauford and I would walk together through the streets of New York City. He was then, and is now, working all the time, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he is seeing all the time; and the reality of his seeing caused me to begin to see.
James Baldwin, “Introduction to Exhibition of Beauford Delaney Opening December 4, 1964 at the Gallery Lambert,” in Beauford Delaney: A Retrospective, (The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1978), 20–22.
Cover Image: Jane Evelyn Atwood, James Baldwin with bust of himself sculpted by Larry Wolhandler, Paris, France 1975