James Baldwin and Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures


James Baldwin was globally esteemed as an author and activist in the 1960s, renowned as the most eloquent voice of the civil rights movement. However, by the 1970s, Baldwin's reputation as an artist and activist had dwindled. Critics accused him of being out of touch, and he had retreated to Europe, far from the maelstrom of the Black Art and Black Power movements in the USA. Yet in the last two decades, and particularly since the growth of Black Lives Matter after 2013, Baldwin has again become a global icon. However, studies of Baldwin's international profile ignore his notable presence in British culture, and his influence on generations of British artists and activists. Similarly, they elide Baldwin's insights into Britain's colonial past, and what he reveals about the relationship between African American and Black Diasporic cultures. At the centennial of his birth, this project proposes a reappraisal of how James Baldwin has influenced British-based artists and activists from the 1960s to the present, and what his life and work say about the connections between structures of global racism, imperialism, and colonialism.

Baldwin visited the UK on numerous occasions between the 1960s and the 1980s. A sharp commentator on British race relations, he was the subject of a major documentary and several interviews; he gave high-profile speeches in support of black prisoners, and won a televised debate at the Cambridge Union. In his final years, when Baldwin's reputation was at a low ebb elsewhere, his play The Amen Corner became the first Black British production to reach the West End. Baldwin has also been cited as a source of political and aesthetic inspiration by generations of British-based artists, critics, and activists, from CLR James, Hanif Kureishi, and Leila Hassan Howe to Black Lives Matter UK and the black British female collective, gal-dem.

The project is led by an experienced international team of scholars from Literary Studies, Politics, and History, and is supported by an advisory team of academics, artists, and activists. It aims to reflect Baldwin's status as a global writer and activist, a literary and public figure whose work cuts across genres and disciplines. It also asks how we might interpret engagement with different aspects of Baldwin's work as a means for understanding the shifting priorities of black British arts, activism and politics. Work will proceed in three strands, each combining research, dissemination and impact activities:

First, an oral history project will collect testimonies from Black British artists and activists who knew and/or have been influenced by Baldwin's life and work. High quality recordings and transcriptions of these interviews will be made freely available, and an accessible edited collection that mixes interviews and essays by participants will be produced to target a wide audience.

A second strand will profile James Baldwin as an activist in British public life. A comprehensive database of Baldwin in British national print media from the 1960s will be complemented by a two-day symposium of academics, artists and activists who will discuss Baldwin's wide-ranging impact. This event will result in an edited academic volume which will further scholarship on Baldwin as a transnational author and activist who transcended Black, queer, and transnational identities, as well as documenting his relationship to Black British feminism.

Finally, a third strand on visual culture will analyse Baldwin the 'celebrity', a new voice at the dawn of televisual culture. Collaborations with the Barbican in London and HOME in Manchester will create a filmic archive of Baldwin's connections to Britain. Public screenings and talks will further understanding of Baldwin in the popular imagination, while a programme of events - including creative programmes for young people - will engage diverse audiences.


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