In an issue of Playbill in 1964, iconic gay writer James Baldwin included a little mention about some future projects he was working on, including a book about “the FBI and the South”. When the then head of the FBI, the nasty cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover, was informed of the project, his response was characteristically curt: “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”. For Hoover and his FBI, it wasn’t a rhetorical question, but it launched more inquiries about details of Baldwin’s “perversion”. Baldwin never wrote that book, and there’s evidence he never planned to. He was just gaslighting the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Baldwin was a great essayist, playwright, novelist, and major player in the American Civil Rights movement. His first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953), received a lot of attention, winning praise for his insights on race and spirituality. Other novels included the gay-themed Giovanni’s Room (1956), Another Country (1962), and Just Above My Head (1979), plus collections of essays like Notes Of A Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963)
The FBI considered the Harlem-born Baldwin to be the most powerful broker between Black art and Black power. There is an 1,884-page FBI file on Baldwin, covering the period from 1958 to 1972. It was the largest FBI file compiled on any Black artist of the Civil Rights era, tracking Baldwin’s writings, phone conversations, and sex life, and his defiant efforts to spy back at Hoover and his agents.
That Baldwin was the victim of government surveillance isn’t surprising; many figures in the Civil Rights Movement had FBI files. But LGBTQ activists like Baldwin were especially targeted, use of “homosexuality”, “queer” and “deviant sexuality” were just some of the FBI’s offensives against Black activists and their allies.
In 1963, the FBI added Baldwin to their “Security Index”, a “list of citizens who would be arrested first in the event of a state of emergency”. An FBI supervisor reported:
“Information has been developed by the Bureau that BALDWIN is a homosexual, and on a recent occasion made derogatory remarks in reference to the Bureau.”
Baldwin hung out with the most famous Black artist/activists of the 1960s, including Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte. The FBI had files on 250 artists that openly supported the Civil Rights movement.
Baldwin was in good company. The FBI had surveillance of Black Gay Rights activists Bayard Rustin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Pauli Murray. The FBI spread rumors that many activists were gay, hoping to tear apart any alliance between Black Power and Gay Liberation groups.
Baldwin was surprisingly public in his FBI surveillance. He called Hoover “…history’s most highly paid (and most utterly useless) voyeur“. He also wrote about his experience of being accosted by two G-men in his essay, The Devil Finds Work, writing that in 1945 the FBI agents walked him out of a diner, stood him against a wall and verbally abused him, under the pretense of trying to track down an army deserter.