STONINGTON — “The whole question of who Baldwin was writing for and about, and who can write for and about him, is an ongoing one,” Nicholas Boggs said. “He lived such a profoundly interracial life … so writing and thinking about Baldwin is a good space to have a dialogue for everyone, always, about race.”
Boggs, the December-January writer-in-residence at James Merrill House, is at work on a biography of Baldwin (1924-1987), the African American civil rights activist, novelist, essayist, and playwright.
“I was led to this project by the experience of recovering and co-editing a new edition of his out-of-print children’s book, ‘Little Man, Little Man,’” said Boggs, 47, who discovered the book at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library when he was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1990s.
First published in 1976, the book depicts the joys as well as the violence of life in Harlem through the eyes of TJ, a 4-year-old African American boy modeled on Baldwin’s nephew. When Baldwin wrote the book, he was living in the south of France where he had moved to escape the racism he experienced and witnessed in the United States.
When Boggs wrote his senior thesis at Yale about “Little Man, Little Man,” he interviewed David Leeming, Baldwin’s personal secretary, who wrote an authorized biography of Baldwin in 1994.
Boggs asked Leeming about Yoran Cazac, the book’s illustrator, but Leeming said he had never met Cazac and thought he was probably dead.
Still in search of Cazac, Boggs sent emails to art historians in Paris while he was in grad school at Columbia in the early 2000s.
“A few weeks later, I got a phone call in Brooklyn, in my studio apartment and it’s Yoran Cazac, alive, 63, calling to say, ‘I hear you’re looking for me. Come to Paris,” Boggs said.
Boggs flew to Paris and met Cazac, who died two years later, but the meeting served as a catalyst to republishing the book. Boggs met and worked with Baldwin’s family to revive the book and wrote the introduction to the new edition, published in 2018.
“It really was only through that process that I began to understand that I was writing, eventually, a biography,” said Boggs, a clinical assistant professor of English at New York University.
He said his book is part of the larger collective movement of preserving Baldwin’s legacy and exploring his importance today.
Indeed, Baldwin’s work has received renewed attention on a number of fronts, including the 2017 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and the 2018 film adaptation of “If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by Barry Jenkins. In 2017, the New York Times reported that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture acquired a large cache of Baldwin’s papers, which are available for public view. Also in 2017, Taschen reprinted “Nothing Personal,” a collaboration between Richard Avedon and James Baldwin, first in print in 1964.
Boggs’ biography of Baldwin, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will explore various communities and geographies where Baldwin produced his work.
For the project, Boggs traveled to places where Baldwin lived, including Corsica, where Baldwin lived for six months and where he contemplated suicide, and to Istanbul where Baldwin spent much of the 1960s.
“It was a place that provided him a refuge to write “The Fire Next Time” and “Another Country,” which landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1963,” said Boggs. “I wanted to understand why he was drawn to these places and what kinds of [elements] in these locations, helped him continue to produce important works of art.”
Boggs,who is a fellow at the Leon Levy Center for Biography this year said Baldwin challenges white people to think critically about their investments in whiteness.
But, beyond race, Boggs said Baldwin was constantly subverting categories, for example, children’s books versus adult books, American versus European, black-white, male-female, and, especially, sexuality.
“The whole question of sexuality is incredibly complicated because he rejected all identity categories. He said homosexuality was a verb, not a noun. He believed in the end that we’re all individuals who love other individuals and that really it is the dominant culture that imposes these identities, whether they are racial identities, or gender identities around sexuality, which in his mind failed to capture the complexity of human relationships and experience,” Boggs said.
For example, Boggs said, the idea that whiteness only exists by contrasting itself and denigrating blackness, heterosexuality only exists by opposing and in some ways demeaning homosexuality, and male only exists as an effect of a devalued female — “Baldwin would not accept any of that.”
“Anyone writing about Baldwin has to sort of explore the intersection of these identities in his life and his writing. You can’t write about his race without writing about his sexuality … At the same time, you have to honor the fact that he said for him the racial question always came first — you have to honor that and ask why.”
On January 16 at 5 p.m., Boggs will discuss Baldwin’s work with poet Nicole Terez Dutton, editor of “The Kenyon Review.” The discussion will air live on Facebook and YouTube.