Why Did the FBI Spy on James Baldwin?

James Baldwin was a writer and civil rights activist. He was known for his writings about race relations in America. In 1952, he became the first black American author to win the prestigious National Book Award. His novel Go Tell it On the Mountain won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953.

In 1955, Baldwin published Notes of a Native Son, a book that explored the relationship between racism and poverty in America. This book earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964.

The FBI initially investigated Baldwin because of his political views and activism. They suspected he had ties to Communism because he signed a petition for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. However, the Bureau did not know that Baldwin wrote novels at the time.

So the FBI kept tabs on Baldwin long before he became famous. They had files on him before he became a public figure.

James Baldwin had a 1,884 Page FBI dossier

Baldwin’s file with the FBI was approximately 2000 pages. While most people know him for his novels, he also penned plays, essays, and short stories and was outspoken against racial injustice. So why did the FBI care what Baldwin thought?

According to the FBI, Baldwin was trying to write about the Bureau. He was interested in how the FBI handled certain cases, such as the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman. The FBI wanted to prevent Baldwin from publishing anything about the Bureau and believed he was planning to write a book about them.

Baldwin was interviewed in Playbill, where he announced plans to expose the Bureau’s treatment of African Americans in the South, this time calling the book Blood Counters.

“Isn’t Baldwin That Well Known Pervert”

He was an author, essayist, and critic among his time’s most distinguished writers and intellectuals. But his skin was also dark, his sexuality ambiguous, and his politics leaned left.

So the FBI monitored Baldwin’s growing activism and even investigated rumors of his sexual orientation. The FBI viewed Baldwin as threatening due to his outspokenness and believed him to be gay. To the point that J. Edgar Hoover asked in the lower right margin of a July 17th memo – “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”

To which FBI Officer M.A. Jones replied, “It is not a matter of official record that is a pervert,” even though “the theme of homosexuality has figured prominently in two of his three published novels. Baldwin has stated that it is also ‘implicit’ in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the past, he has not disputed the description of ‘autobiographical’ being attached to the first book.”

Not alone in political activism in the arts

Baldwin wasn’t the first person to be targeted by the FBI because of his activism; he was hardly alone. Prominent LGBTQ civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin and Lorraine Hansberry were also being monitored. But perhaps the most ridiculous thing in his FBI files are the heap of inaccuracies that make a riddle of even the most basic details of his life.

For example, there is an entry describing Baldwin as white, early 20s, six feet tall, neat. However, he is also described as the author of “Go Tell It To the Mountains” and “Another World.” While its well understood that they are actually called Go Tell It On The Mountain and Another Country. Such bizarre mistakes seem like a precursor to how the bulk collection of meta­data today often leads to mountains of misinformation.

Baldwin’s nearly 2000 pages read like a long, poorly written novel, not up to the literary brilliance of the man it meant to understand.

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