James Baldwin and the 1980s: A New Book on the Iconic Writer’s Last Decade

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era was recently published by the University of Illinois Press.

***

The author of James Baldwin and the 1980s is Joseph Vogel. He is an Assistant Professor at Merrimack College. He is the author of several books, including Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (Sterling), James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era (University of Illinois Press) and This Thing Called Life: Prince, Race, Sex, Religion, and Music (Bloomsbury Academic). His work has appeared in the James Baldwin Review, the F. Scott Fitzgerald Review, The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Culture, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies, as well as popular news sites, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate, The Huffington Post, and PopMatters. He holds a PhD from the University of Rochester. Dr. Vogel’s book on the creative work of Michael Jackson — Man in the Music — has been translated into four languages and used as a course text at several colleges and universities. Vogel has been interviewed by media around the world and featured in numerous documentary films. In 2012, he worked as a consultant for, and was featured in, Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film, Bad 25. He also appeared in Lee’s 2016 documentary, Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. In 2014, he wrote the liner notes for the best-selling posthumous Michael Jackson album, Xscape (Epic Records) and contributed the entry for “Thriller” (1982) to the National Recording Registry for the Library of Congress. In 2016, he won the Russel B. Nye Award for Best Article Published in the Journal of Popular Culture from the Journal of Popular Culture and the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association for his essay, “Freaks in the Reagan Era.” Follow him on Twitter @JoeVogel1.


By the 1980s, critics and the public alike considered James Baldwin irrelevant. Yet Baldwin remained an important, prolific writer until his death in 1987. Indeed, his work throughout the decade pushed him into new areas, in particular an expanded interest in the social and psychological consequences of popular culture and mass media.

Joseph Vogel offers the first in-depth look at Baldwin’s dynamic final decade of work. Delving into the writer’s creative endeavors, crucial essays and articles, and the impassioned polemic The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Vogel finds Baldwin as prescient and fearless as ever. Baldwin’s sustained grappling with “the great transforming energy” of mass culture revealed his gifts for media and cultural criticism. It also brought him into the fray on issues ranging from the Reagan-era culture wars to the New South, from the deterioration of inner cities to the disproportionate incarceration of black youth, and from pop culture gender-bending to the evolving women’s and gay rights movements. Astute and compelling, James Baldwin and the 1980s revives and redeems the final act of a great American writer.

“While scholars have started to chip away at the critical consensus that James Baldwin lost his way as a writer after the mid-1960s, very few critics have paid attention to the last decade of the writer’s work. As Vogel argues in this insightful and elegantly written book, Baldwin remained a vital force in American letters.” —Douglas Field, author of All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin


Phillip Luke Sinitiere: Please share with us the creation story of James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era—those experiences, those factors, those revelations from your engagement with Baldwin’s intellectual and cultural work that influenced your unique book.

Joseph Vogel: The seed for this book started several years ago. I’d written a book on Michael Jackson and stumbled upon a 1985 Baldwin essay that mentions Jackson—and what Baldwin feared would happen to the pop star as an eccentric, powerful black artist in America. I thought the essay was brilliant (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Playboy). So I wrote about it and became curious about what else Baldwin was writing at the time. Since he is mostly associated with the civil rights era I didn’t know if this essay was an anomaly or what other hidden gems I might find from his final decade.

Turns out there was a treasure trove of incredible work of his from the 80s. I was shocked: not just by how great it was, but its diversity: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, a documentary, even a spoken-word-jazz album. It was dialed into what was going on at the time: in addition to “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” which deals with androgyny and gender-bending in pop culture, he addressed the Atlanta Child Murders, the religious right and televangelism, black incarceration, and urban decay and white flight.

One of the most incredible revelations came when I was looking at an unpublished play Baldwin worked on in the 80s called The Welcome Table. Only four copies of that play exist—each of them a bit different. Baldwin has sometimes been criticized for not saying much about the gay rights movement—and in particular, the AIDS crisis—in the 80s. However, I discovered a 1984 Baldwin interview with Richard Goldstein for the Village Voice. But while that interview presented Baldwin’s views on sexuality and the gay rights movement, it really didn’t shed much light on his thoughts on the AIDS epidemic. But here, in this unpublished play, Baldwin was explicitly grappling with AIDS and how it impacts the story’s main characters. Really, the entire play is about love and intimacy in this era so fraught with panic and fear and tragedy. So, my incredible discovery of the play in Harvard’s Houghton Library ended up being a chapter in my book. Reading Baldwin in the age of Obama and Trump has been so illuminating because he was so prescient about what’s happening today. He understood how stubbornly our history as a country clings to us—whether we are aware of it or not.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies. In 2018-19, he is a W. E. B. Du Bois Visiting Scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, his publications examine the American prosperity gospel, the history of evangelical Christianity, televangelism, African American religion, Black intellectual history, and the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. He has published several books, including Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis, and American History with Amy Helene Kirschke (University of Missouri Press, 2014); and Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (New York University Press, 2015). At present, he is at work on several projects related to W. E. B. Du Bois, along with a short biography of James Baldwin for Rowman & Littlefield’s Library of African American Biography series.