Dreaming Mahalia: Race, Ruins and Gospel Music in James Baldwin’s Holy Land
In 1948 American writer James Baldwin self-exiled to Paris, France. When he went to Paris, “he did not so much find an alternative place as realize the profundity of his displacement” everywhere. As a result, Baldwin confessed later, “I no longer need to fear leaving Europe, no longer need to hide myself from the high and dangerous winds of the world. The world was enormous and I could go anywhere in it I chose[. . .].” In 1961, Baldwin set out on the first of three significant journeys well past the interzones of Paris, journeys which distinguish themselves from those more mundane wanderings of a writer’s restless life by their power to bring “art, life and,” as I shall show, “religious faith” into profound convergence. I call these passages to the Middle East in 1961, West Africa in 1962 and the American South in 1957 and 1963, pilgrim journeys, after a tradition of Christian hymnody intimate with Baldwin’s own Afro-Pentecostal inheritance, and that popularized by the late queen of black gospel music, Mahalia Jackson. Against his twice-told disavowal of faith in the Christian God, these critical pilgrimages disclose a religious temperament and theological ethic about Baldwin’s person and genius that have gone mostly unexamined.
While he had previously imagined Israel as a gateway to Africa, a stop in “one of the homelands which has given me my identity. . . on my way to another”, the totemic power of so much living iconography over the affective function in the black holiness imaginary that could not leave him would seem to have overwhelmed Baldwin and interpellated him into a nostalgically religious subjecthood, one in which the iconic power and forceful gospel sound of Mahalia Jackson, queen of black American gospel music, predominated.
Keywords: James Baldwin, Mahalia Jackson, Gospel Music, Transnationalism, Religion, Israel
Prof. Maurice Wallace
Associate Professor, English