In the 2020 Black Lives Matter moment, tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets from Minneapolis to Louisville to Atlanta to Kenosha shouting for America to look at itself – to confront its lies about race.
Arguably, no writer has ever made this request with more force, passion or eloquence than James Baldwin. More than 33 years after his death at 63, Baldwin continues to give a voice to our time. Many of today’s most prominent intellectuals and writers, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward, have published works that channel Baldwin.
Ward’s “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race” (2016) and “Between the World and Me” by Coates (2015) are direct divisions on Baldwin’s iconic collection of 1963 essays, “The Fire Next Time ”, a critique of the racial issues that distorted and made ugly the American dream.
Baldwin even appeared to herald our current tense political moment – the aftermath of the 2020 election that spawned the deadly US Capitol Riot: “A civilization is not destroyed by bad people; people don’t have to be mean, they just need to be soulless, ”he writes in“ The Fire Next Time ”.
“Jimmy lived in the present. He spoke of the ‘now’, ”said internationally renowned writer and poet Quincy Troupe, explaining why his close friend’s words still resonate. “He was flawlessly honest, always honest, always frank. & mldr; He said it like it is and never chops up words.
Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, agrees. His recently published book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own,” pulled the bestseller lists in 2020. Of Baldwin he says: “Without a doubt he was the foremost American writer on race and democracy. & mldr; Here you have this weird black man who spoke courageously and honestly about the plight of blacks, all Americans & mldr; Her life was so on point, so in the moment.
It is Baldwin’s willingness to accept the risks that come with unapologetic honesty – in his own words, “bear witness” – that has made him one of the foremost advocates of racial and personal freedom. This twig of a man – big-eyed, wide-open teeth, and all 5ft 6inches – has called out America’s hypocrisy and depravity over and over again, shaming his need to cling to his myth of creating freedom and democracy while ignoring racism and genocide. at its root.
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Sitting for an interview with the editors of Esquire magazine in July 1968, as the nation was rocked by riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin was asked: “How can we bring it about? blacks to calm him down? ” Baldwin replied, “All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own story & mldr ;. Your story has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change and save yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your story. “
Baldwin’s testimony to the anger and angst of the civil rights struggle that turned into the Black Power movement made bestsellers of his books from the late 50s and 60s – and again in the 21st century. The 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” by Raoul Peck, which explores America’s racist history based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” is testament to its timelessness. The same goes for the award-winning 2018 film ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, adapted from Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name.
Cambridge University’s famous and iconic 1965 debate with William F. Buckley, the father of the conservative movement, has been reimagined for the March 2020 Washington Film Festival. Harvard University professor Khalil Muhammad and conservative political commentator and writer David Frum addressed much the same motion presented to Baldwin and Buckley 55 years earlier: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?”
The original debate, as well as Baldwin’s speeches and film interviews, receive millions of views online every year. And historians and scholars continually extract the life and works of the man Malcolm X knighted as “the poet of the revolution.”
Glaude noted that at one point in his life Baldwin was a child preacher. In a sense, he says, Baldwin never left the pulpit. “He put contradictions at the heart of America. & mldr; Baldwin has always been the key figure in helping us understand this American project. ”
Baldwin keenly observed that whenever America is on the brink of fundamental change – as it is now after its continuing racial divisions have been so bare – it steps back and reaffirms “the lie at the center of it. self-image of America: that whites matter more than others. These moments, according to Glaude, include the reconstruction, the civil rights movement and, most recently, the election of Barack Obama. “Baldwin once said that ‘the horror is that America is changing all the time and never changing at all’. ”
Born in the hardscrabble that was Harlem in 1924, the young Baldwin felt the sting of rejection first from a loveless stepfather and soon after from a country that diminished and demonized him solely because of his race. In 1948, at the age of 24, he fled penniless and unheard of in Paris. In a 1984 interview, he explained his escape to Paris by saying: “It was not so much a question of France’s choice. It was a matter of getting out of America.
But Baldwin never left America, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic Ocean to fully immerse himself in the struggle for civil rights and the Black Power movement. He returned not only to face but also to rejuvenate and reconnect, said Troupe, who as a young writer often met Baldwin at Mikell’s, a Harlem jazz club. “Jimmy would come into town and call everyone there.”
He remembered Baldwin, chain-smoking, scotch or bourbon in hand, holding a tribunal talking politics, talking about writing, or just slamming. “Jimmy was physically a little guy, but he didn’t take (shit) away from anyone… Everyone loved his guts, his writing, he was just a handsome brother,” Troupe says.
As he neared the end of his life, Baldwin shared with Troupe that he felt like a “broken engine”, issuing the same warnings about racism time and time again. The troupe had traveled to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in November 1987 to visit the writer a few weeks before his death. As Baldwin put it in “The Last Interview,” as Troupe said, “You know I was trying to tell the truth & mldr; It was said, and it was said, and it was said. It was said. was heard and not heard You are a broken engine.
Troupe said that even weakened by stomach cancer and bedridden, Baldwin remained insistent in his demand for America’s honesty. “Jimmy loved America, but he hated stupidity and racism.”
Baldwin had this stubborn determination, unwavering will and stubbornness to go along with America because deep down he was a fighter, Troupe said. He said the resolution came from the fact that Baldwin was bullied on the streets of Harlem as a child, a story the author shared with Troupe in “The Last Interview.”
“Well, if you wanted to beat me, okay. And, say, you were taller than me, you could do it & mldr; but you’re gonna have to do it every day. You should beat me every day. So the question then becomes which of us would be tired first. And I knew it wouldn’t be me.