James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the best Black American writers of the 1900s. He was so good that they would not let him speak at the March on Washington in 1963. He is best known for “The Fire Next Time” (1963), one of the best things ever written about race in the US.
- Toni Morrison said his death left an intellectual void till Ta-Nehisi Coates came out with “Between the World and Me” in 2015.
- Amiri Baraka called him the “Joan of Arc of the cocktail party.”
- Ishmael Reed said he was “a hustler who comes on like Job.”
Baldwin’s thought and expression seem deeper than that of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr, but for that very reason it could not directly move the masses to effect change.
His aim, though, was not to be a reformer. He wanted “to be an honest man and a good writer.” That meant writing the truth as best he could, to bear witness.
- King James Bible,
- storefront preaching,
- Bessie Smith’s blues songs,
- “Dickens’ love of bravura”,
- “something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech.”
His father was a Pentecostal preacher in Harlem, and so was he from age 14 to 17. After seeing what went on behind the scenes, he left the church. But the church never left him. You see that in his language and his heavily moral point of view. It is almost Jeremiah meets the New Yorker magazine.
The adviser at his high school’s literary club was Countee Cullen, a famous Black poet.
His mentor after high school was Richard Wright, an even more famous Black writer. Wright got him into the pages of the Nation magazine. Baldwin had written enough of his first (bad) novel to get a Rosenwald Fellowship. That gave him the money to leave for France in 1948. He knew no French.
In France he came to think and speak in French. Like Angela Davis, he experienced French racism. It made him see the racism and language of the US with new eyes. Like Dante and Joyce, he lived most of his life in exile, yet wrote almost obsessively about his left-behind country.
He did return to the US for a few years during the height of the civil rights movement. Many of his essays from that period are in “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961).
He also wrote novels: “Go Tell it on the Mountain” (1953), which made his name, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956) and “Another Country” (1962). The last two have gay relationships. Baldwin was himself openly gay.
The best thing about Baldwin is that he writes the truth as he knows it, fearlessly, and does it from a moral centre.
Black and White Americans he saw as profoundly damaged by racism, in different ways, in both mind and heart. They need to face their separately painful pasts.
“the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, … the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”
– Abagond, 2015, 2016.
- Also by or about Baldwin:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me
- March on Washington, 1963
- Toni Morrison
- Malcolm X
- Martin Luther King, Jr
- Angela Davis