Sun. May 26th, 2024

James Baldwin would have turned 100 on Aug. 2 this year. His final works were published almost 40 years ago, just two years before his death in 1987. Yet his writing is as imperative as ever. He wrote with the kind of moral vision that was as comforting as it was chastising — almost surely the influence of the pulpit he once occupied as a child preacher in his native Harlem.

Baldwin never went to college, but he read, by his own count, every book in the library. Remarkably, he never received any of the major literary awards. But he wrote with grace and aplomb across genre: essay, novel, short story, song, children’s literature, drama, poetry and, infamously, screenplay. I say infamously because he was hired to write the script for a Malcolm X biopic, which he did reluctantly. Hollywood made it into a documentary instead and then never released it, leaving Baldwin to publish it himself in book form, as “One Day When I Was Lost.”

Few people are as eloquent with the pen as Baldwin was. He returned again and again to central themes: compassion, radical honesty, and his insistence that we “grow up.” Even after leaving the United States for France in the 1940s, hoping to escape the pervasive anti-Blackness he had experienced and witnessed, he was a fierce observer of race and culture in America. There is as much spiritual intensity as academic rigor in his books, along with a sense that he was trying to capture something as large as life with his words. That wrestling manifested itself in the length of some of his sentences (one totals 321 words). He sacrificed nothing — not style, not substance, not clarity, not beauty, not wisdom — except brevity.

All of his writing — no matter how pointed, critical or angry — is imbued with love. As someone who understood that love is key to liberation, he committed himself to the herculean task of persuading the rest of us. In the documentary short “Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” he says: “Love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted, really, to be free. The world is held together — really it is held together — by the love and the passion of a very few people.”

But alongside his deep affection for humanity was the abiding despair that attends when someone has decided to be a particular kind of witness, that is to say a prophet, which Baldwin certainly was — not because he could foretell the future, but because as an enormously astute observer of human behavior, he could make connections that escaped everyone else. As he said so sublimely in his 1972 memoir, “No Name in the Street”: “Every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

Baldwin’s sexuality and the role it played in his writing are too often overlooked or minimized. Existing at this intersection of identities blessed him with empathy and nuanced insight. He described it simply: “I loved a few women, I loved a few men. That was what saved my life.” But he never truly identified as bisexual, homosexual, gay or queer because he thought it was bizarre to distinguish those realities from more socially acceptable ones.

He also felt that the American movement for gay rights contained the same biases against Black people as those in mainstream society. “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger unexpectedly,” he told The Village Voice in 1984. “Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept Black people than anywhere else in society.”

Today, you can find Baldwin’s words emblazoned on T-shirts, painted on murals and plastered across social media. Even divorced from their greater context, they still hold tremendous weight. I am forever linked to Baldwin, and not only because of his profound influence on my work. Thanks to my former Twitter alias, “Son of Baldwin,” something I said on the site back in 2015 will likely always be misattributed to him and I don’t mind. After all, he’s given me more than I could ever hope to repay.

Above all else, Baldwin’s work is a mirror — for the things we don’t want to see about ourselves, but also for our potential. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I sense we will never live up to the standards he hoped we would. But he, ever the optimist, even within his own grief, truly believed we could.

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” (1953) is Baldwin’s first novel. It is a semi-autobiographical account of a young man named John, his family, his friends, his neighborhood, his church and the Black American journey from the South to the North known as the Great Migration. Nearly biblical in its tenor, it is a kind of gospel. The novel is interspersed with the lyrics and music of Black Christian traditions and reaches a fever pitch during the final section of the book, “The Thrashing Floor.” That’s where Baldwin is describing what it looks like, what it feels like, what it sounds like when someone catches the Holy Ghost. Here, he accomplishes the literary equivalent of speaking in tongues. The language is extraordinary:

Ah, down! — and to what purpose, where? To the bottom of the sea, the bowels of the earth, to the heart of the fiery furnace? Into a dungeon deeper than Hell, into a madness louder than the grave? What trumpet sound would awaken him, what hand would lift him up? For he knew, as he was struck again, and screamed again, his throat like burning ashes, and as he turned again, his body hanging from him like a useless weight, a heavy, rotting carcass, that if he were not lifted, he would never rise.”

I’ve heard people describe this novel as strange. I think what they were responding to was its covert queerness. John and his teenage friend and fellow parishioner, Elisha, never do anything overtly sexual, but the heat between them radiates off the pages; and their desperation to touch each other (which they do under the guise of play-fighting) and be near each other is palpable, electric and radiant. This novel opens the door for readers to understand the kind of writer Baldwin would become as well as the experiences that shaped his craft.

Nearly 70 years ago, Baldwin wrote a novel about a romance between two men. That might not seem like such a big deal now, but then, it was practically unheard of.

“Giovanni’s Room” (1956) takes place in Paris during the 1950s and details the story of an American expatriate named David, who meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender, at a gay bar. The two become friends and, eventually, lovers. But there’s a problem: David has a girlfriend. What is both beautiful and agonizing about the story is how the reader is forced to contend with David’s deep insecurities. He is attracted to Giovanni, but despises Giovanni (and himself) for it.

In characteristically thought-provoking precision, Baldwin links misogyny and anti-queerness. David’s hatred of feminine qualities in men and Giovanni’s hatred of women mirror each other, and expose how David’s self-loathing impacts his relationship to women and Giovanni’s misogynist views mask his own self-hatred. The more sharply their paths diverge, the more they intersect. And as we are led to a heart-shattering conclusion where David must choose between Giovanni and his girlfriend, Hella, and Giovanni faces life-threatening consequences, we are left to wonder which of their fates is worse — or if they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

“The Fire Next Time” (1963) is probably Baldwin’s most popular book. It begins with a letter written to his nephew James, in which Baldwin implores his namesake not to believe any of the negative things white supremacists have to say about him; that what they say about him actually reveals what they really feel about themselves. “Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your humanity but to their inhumanity and fear,” he wrote.

In the book’s more substantive essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind,” he turns his critical eye on Christianity and sits down in conversation with Elijah Muhammad, then the leader of the Nation of Islam. He reflects on these encounters and concludes that ultimately, religion serves as a divisive force — that it invests human beings with false senses of superiority, that white people’s hostilities and Black people’s resentments of those hostilities will perhaps lead to race wars and possibly the destruction of the nation. “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, more loving,” he writes. “If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.”

For Baldwin, the only thing that might help us avoid these dire fates is love. Not the romantic or commercial kind, but the radical kind in which folks are called upon to really love their neighbors, by which Baldwin meant through actions, not feelings. And his assessment comes, in the final pages, as a warning, as a clarion call that, still to this day, reverberates off the walls and rattles the soul.

Along with “The Fire Next Time” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) is one of Baldwin’s best-known works. It is a short story that details the relationship between two brothers in Harlem: an unnamed teacher who narrates the story, and a jazz pianist named Sonny. Both are war veterans (Baldwin never says which conflict), and one brother struggles with addiction, while the other tries to figure out why. But the story isn’t merely a safari through the miseries and fleeting moments of reprieve in Black people’s lives. That may be the backdrop, but in the foreground Baldwin explains to us, in ways that are wholly astonishing, the nature of music itself.

It’s not just that he writes what is probably the most accurate description of what music can sound like. He illustrates where it comes from and what it feels like. The narrator shares his thoughts while in a nightclub to see Sonny and his bandmates perform for the first time.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.

The story is filled with other sounds: street gospel, bluesy jukeboxes and whistling children. It’s one of those classics where you come for the lyrics, but stay for the beat.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” (1974) was the first novel by Baldwin to be adapted into a major motion picture. And it’s easy to see why. Though it was written and is set in the 1970s, its themes regarding the troubled relationship between Black people and the police are, unfortunately, timeless. Its plot could as easily be a headline in 2024 as 50 years ago.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, two young Black people who fall in love, and who are violently separated when Fonny is falsely accused of rape. Even when describing the novel’s most harrowing aspects, Baldwin always puts love front and center. Tish, the main narrator, tells the reader early on, “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.” That one sentence might be the novel’s thesis statement as Baldwin navigates the havoc that a carceral system wreaks on families, how it steals time and touch, and how love is likely the only thing that can withstand such an assault.

What’s most frightening about this story is the casual way in which Baldwin conveys the injustice: It seems routine for a Black man to be falsely accused, and for society to be eager to find him guilty of a crime he didn’t commit. It’s all very heavy but feels very contemporary, which suggests that society has not evolved as much as it may think it has. The story’s ending, which mirrors our current circumstances, is proof. Baldwin was masterly at giving voice to that melancholy, but never without some kind of gesture toward the light.

In the essay collection “The Devil Finds Work” (1976), Baldwin recalls his lifelong love affair with movies, critically analyzing both contemporary films and those of his childhood. He discusses his first impressions of actors like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, his suspicion of a kind of gangster archetype (as played by actors like Humphrey Bogart), Hollywood’s propensity for white savior narratives and stereotypical depictions of Black people and his own run-in with the Hollywood machine. All the while, he weaves in comparisons to literary classics by Faulkner, Shakespeare and others.

The standout pieces include a biting analysis of “The Defiant Ones,” about two escaped prisoners, and a sympathetic evaluation of the Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues,” which he initially detested. But the pièce de résistance is his review of “The Exorcist.” Baldwin was one of the few critics at the time who was not wowed by the film. He outlines how he and a friend went to see it at his friend’s insistence, after hearing all the national hype about people vomiting, passing out and running from the screenings. None of this impresses Baldwin. He puts it bluntly: “The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in ‘The Exorcist’ is the most terrifying thing about the film.” He continues, “Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any Black man, and not only Blacks, many, many others, including white children, can call them on this lie; he who has been treated as the Devil recognizes the Devil when they meet.”

“The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (1985) chronicles Baldwin’s agonizing trip to Atlanta to report on the Atlanta child murders, where two dozen children, mostly Black boys, were taken by a serial killer between 1979 and 1981.

I’m not certain how many people remember this underexamined blemish on the nation’s skin, but as a Black child alive during this era, I was petrified, thinking that I would be snatched up any minute, even though I lived hundreds of miles from the scenes of the crimes.

“Evidence” is not a hard-nosed, true-crime assessment, nor does it try to glamorize its subject. Instead, what these heinous acts opened up for Baldwin was his ability to look critically at the history that led the nation to these moments: the human condition, the condition of the human heart and the pathologies that render Black people, especially Black children, worthless in the country’s imagination. He saw no difference between the Atlanta child murders (and the country’s response to them) and the murder of Emmett Till, and viewed them as an outcome of racism endemic to America. He felt this even though Wayne Williams, a Black man, was eventually convicted of the killings. The general feeling of the Black people who spoke to Baldwin was that white people “win when a Black person can” kill Black children.

Baldwin found Williams to be a bizarre character, though. And he felt the investigation and trial were rushed, incomplete and haphazard at best. At worst, they were just further attempts to pin a crime, any crime, on the nearest Black patsy. And yet — he couldn’t be Baldwin unless he was able to do this — he remained committed as ever to the idea that if there was any place in the world where true liberation from oppression was possible, it would be in America.

His final analysis, to no surprise, rests on the power of love. If only we dared to love ourselves and one another enough to bring it to fruition.

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