“Since this book was written by a Negro”: Banning James Baldwin in Georgia

Well, this is a little humbling: spend enough time digging through archives, and you can’t help but create your own; organize it as best you can, and some things will fall through the cracks.

Like this striking document, which I found in the Georgia State Archives in 2003 or 2004, and have apparently never made much use of, until I pulled it out to share with a friend (and then use in a class exercise in reading primary sources):

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from the Georgia State Literature Commission Administrative Files, box 3, folder: Wesberry, Georgia State Archives, RG 266-1-1

 (If it’s too small to read, clicking will expand it)

It seems I made a passing reference to it in an article about racialized censorship in Memphis; in my book, the omniscient Google Books tells me, I note efforts in New Orleans to ban Another Country, but not this. My guess is the document simply slipped past me—and to be fair to myself, I have endless boxes (and more recently, digital images) of this stuff, so these things do happen. But still, this deserves more attention–plus, James Baldwin is almost assuredly my favorite author, full stop, so it’s a pleasure to have an excuse to post about him.

James Pickett Wesberry, who wrote this letter, was head of the Georgia State Literature Commission and a Baptist minister who saw his job as a holy mission; dig through his papers at Mercer University and you’ll see plenty of speeches like this, calling smut “an enemy worse than communism.”

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James Pickett Wesberry Papers, box 10, folder 49, Mercer University Special Collections

He may have been a fanatic, but he wasn’t a fool; by 1964 a formal legal ban on a reputable novel like Another Country might withstand court review in the Georgia state system, but as soon as it was appealed to the federal level it was virtually certain to be reversed, so working “quietly” and informally with distributors (read: cajoling and threatening them) proved much more effective. While this couldn’t entirely purge the novel from the state, it could drastically scale back its public visibility.

Apparently, Baldwin’s racial identity alone upset the Literature Commission more than the book’s content per se. But I think it’s plausible to suggest both the book’s interracial sexual themes and its queer ones were at play here. The minutes of the commission reflect persistent homophobia (in 1957, for instance, the commission had dismissed complaints against Playboy but recommended prosecution of the homophile magazine ONE), and Wesberry maintained warm relationships with racist governors Herman Talmadge and, later, Lester Maddox. So a queer “Negro” posed a perceived threat to the heteronormative white supremacist status quo. Indeed, the commission’s minutes for Oct. 14, 1963 feature fellow member Hubert Dyar calling Another Country “the book that had bothered him most recently.”

I don’t know the subsequent fate of Another Country in Georgia (nor, clearly, was it the only state to target this or other Baldwin books). And it is rather interesting that Wesberry is writing this letter because the editor of the Baptist Young People’s Union Quarterly had  recommended the book. That certainly wouldn’t happen in later years, after the Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by hardline conservatives in the late 70s (as detailed in Daniel Williams’s God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right).

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oh, *hell* yes

Since I missed my chance to use this document years ago, upon re-discovering it, I thought I’d put it online in the hopes that it might be of interest to others. Organizations like the Georgia State Literature Commission remain fascinating and overlooked institutions that—importantly for historians—often left rich paper trails. This is just the tip of the iceberg—I found the GSLC’s papers amazing to dig through back in the day, and did make use of them elsewhere in Perversion for Profit. Of course, I and anyone else who writes about the group are indebted to Gregory Lisby’s fantastic 2000 article about it. Google Scholar suggests the piece is woefully under-cited, but it deserves to be read (final aside: as does so much else that’s published in state historical journals—here’s another article, by Kirk Hutson, that I’ll heartily rep for)–as does his (non-paywalled) entry on it for the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Finally, this is a reminder of the various threats faced by the courageous, amazing Baldwin. Censorship was hardly the most pressing danger for him in a racist, homophobic society where physical menace remained a daily lived reality, but this sort of cultural erasure certainly added to his struggle. I’m not actually sure whether there’s a comprehensive recounting of the censorship efforts his works faced in any of the various biographies and studies of him (by all means, please let me know if there is!), but here’s one small reminder of their prevalence—and, of course, ultimately, their utter failure and futility.

 

(Postscript, Nov. 11, 2013: just came across this fascinating post about Another Country‘s travails when it reached Australian customs, wanted to add it here as recommended reading!)

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