The Book James Baldwin Couldn’t Bring Himself to Write

‘Remember This House’ was supposed to look at the legacy of great civil rights leaders, but it never saw the light of day

Each month “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.

The idea for Remember This House first came to James Baldwin in 1979. He envisioned traveling back to the American South to write about three leaders of the civil rights movement: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He’d write about how he had known them, how they had crossed paths and purposes in their fight for racial equality, and how within five years each had been assassinated in that fight. Baldwin had touched on these events before in 1972’s No Name in the Street, but he felt there was more to say. He planned to travel to Atlanta, Selma, and Birmingham to talk with the widows, brothers, sisters of these men—and most of all, with their growing sons and daughters. A decade after the deaths of these leaders, he wondered how they and their cause appeared to their children’s generation.

Baldwin approached The New Yorker to write a long article on the subject, but soon realized the project would be more extensive. He ultimately proposed Remember This House as a new book to his literary agent, Jay Acton. He did so, he said, “in a somewhat divided frame of mind,” dedicated to the work but aware of its emotional toll. “This is a journey, to tell you the truth, which I always knew that I would have to make, but had hoped, perhaps (certainly, I had hoped) not to have to make so soon,” he wrote.

He was about to turn 55, Baldwin remarked, with some astonishment. Time was passing, and the civil rights movement had become the civil rights era. Baldwin felt an obligation to address it, and a reticence. “It means exposing myself as one of the witnesses to the lives and deaths of their famous fathers,” he wrote to Acton. “And it means much, much more than that — a cloud of witnesses, as old St. Paul once put it.” To write this book would mean facing those children and the memories he held of their fathers. It meant facing the question of whether or not the equality they had fought and died for was any closer at the dawn of 1980.

McGraw-Hill soon paid a $200,000 advance for the book (the equivalent of $600,000 today)— the largest in Baldwin’s career. But when he died of liver cancer, eight years later, at his home in the south of France, he had only written about thirty pages of notes for Remember This House. The journey back he’d envisioned making had never been completed.

By all accounts Baldwin made several attempts to write the book, but found it to be “impossible.” Still he continued to come back to the idea again and again. Even when Baldwin was finally so ill that he could not travel, he asked his assistant, David Leeming, if he could not go to speak with the widows and the children in his place. Not long before his death he asked Leeming to help him sort some papers at his desk, including Remember This House, which he hoped to return to “in a day or so.”

By all accounts Baldwin made several attempts to write the book, but found it to be ‘impossible.’

According to Leeming, as the 1980s had progressed, Baldwin’s former optimism had given way to a “general pessimism” about the “unlikelihood of the white world’s changing its ways.” In the essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin wrote about a string of unsolved murders of black children in Atlanta and the failures of both the white police force and the city’s black leaders to act in the crisis.

The “new South” was a myth, Baldwin said in interviews, and he had begun to think the same of some of the ideas he’d once embraced. Whites were eager to believe that America had become more equal. That if there were black politicians and policemen and television and movie stars, progress had been achieved. Baldwin saw the reality of suburban white flight, of the rise of black imprisonment, of racists no longer aware of their racism. The American Dream could not be shared with whites who did not genuinely desire to share it. Looking back, Baldwin felt that the moment had been missed, that the old language of equality and civil rights had become meaningless and that if there was real progress to be made in the future, a “new language” would be needed.

Upon Baldwin’s death in 1987, McGraw-Hill sued his estate to recoup the $200,000 advance for Remember This House — plus interest. Their chairman, Joseph L. Dionne, took the view that, “Mr. Baldwin effectively received an interest-free loan of $200,000 to write a book as to which we await evidence that he ever wrote more than a very rough 11-page draft. As a publicly owned company, McGraw-Hill is not in a position to waive repayment of that sum.”

A New York Times article at the time interviewed a variety of other prominent publishing executives, none of whom could think of any prior situation in which a deceased author’s estate had been sued for repayment of an advance. One industry lawyer said that doing such a thing had always been “considered simply not cricket.”

It took an outcry from the Author’s Guild to convince the publisher to retract the lawsuit, which according to Baldwin’s family, would have led to the eviction of Baldwin’s 89-year-old mother from her home.

After the suit was dropped in 1990, the rights to the 30-some pages of Remember This House reverted back to the Baldwin estate. There they remained for almost two decades before Baldwin’s sister, Gloria Karefa-Smart, one day handed them to filmmaker Raoul Peck. He had been studying the estate’s archives for several years, trying to make a documentary about Baldwin.

“Here, Raoul,” she said, “You’ll know what to do with these.”

And he did.

“A book that was never written!” Peck wrote, in his companion to the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. “That’s the story. … My job was to find that unwritten book.”

Peck’s documentary, released in 2016 to wide critical and audience acclaim. It would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Film. Using a new, visual language, and Baldwin’s own words, he finally took the journey that Baldwin had once found so impossible.

His life’s work would go on to inspire generations of activists to come — those who still believe in forging that new language.

I Am Not Your Negro organizes excerpts from the 30 pages of Remember This House with other bits and pieces of Baldwin’s letters and notes and interviews to tremendous effect. Peck described his role in its creation as similar to a “librettist crafting the script for an opera from the scattered works of a revered author.”

Baldwin had written in a tiny note that he Remember This House should be “a funky dish of chitterlings.” Peck took this concept to heart, combining Baldwin’s words with all manner of other things: still images, film clips, speech excerpts, news footage, song lyrics, a Chiquita banana advertisement — even excerpts from Baldwin’s own FBI file. (Along with noting Baldwin’s homosexuality, the FBI file refers to him as “a dangerous individual who could be expected to commit acts inimical to the national defense and public safety to the United States in times of emergency.”)

Peck illuminates the three civil rights heroes through Baldwin’s memories, but also bears Baldwin’s witnessing to a new generation, a new millennium, almost 40 years after Baldwin first thought of the project.

I Am Not Your Negro is an inspiring and disturbing look into all of the things that made Baldwin so pessimistic in the 1980s, and the still divided, still cruel, still unequal America we inhabit today.

On the title page of that 30-page manuscript for Remember This House — dismissed as worthless by McGraw-Hill, but of such immense value to Peck — Baldwin apparently wrote the first word as “Re/member,” which according to Leeming, suggested his desire to “put a broken ‘house’ together again.” To not just recall, but to reassemble the “‘house’ of the fallen heroes.”

Baldwin joined that house upon his own death, at his home in the south of France surrounded by loved ones. In the days before, Leeming wrote, Baldwin had him read aloud bits of Pride and Prejudice, and they watched a favorite Charlie Chaplin film. His life’s work, and his unfinished business, would go on to inspire generations of activists to come — those who still believe in forging that new language.

In the companion book to I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck shares a 1973 quote of Baldwin’s with us, which was sent to him by Baldwin’s sister Gloria in 2009:

There are new metaphors. There are new sounds. Men and Women will be different. Children will be different. They will have to make money obsolete. Make a man’s life worth more than that. Restore the idea of work as joy, not drudgery.

Baldwin’s despair that such a restoration would ever come to pass kept him from completing his final project, but the hope inspires Peck’s film.

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