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Rediscovering Novelist-Playwright James Baldwin

“If we do not falter in our duty now, we may be able … to end the racial nightmare, and change the history of the world.”

James Baldwin wrote these words in one of two essays later published as The Fire Next Time. He wrote them in 1962 — fifty-eight years ago.

Blog Photo - Book cover The Fire Next time -Penguin

You may, like me, have read his books in earlier years. (You weren’t cool if you hadn’t read James Baldwin in the late 60’s to 80’s.)  But if you haven’t read James Baldwin, or seen his speeches, I suggest you do.  

This novelist and playwright had a rare brilliance, a superb understanding of humanity, a searing eloquence.  And though he died in 1987, there’s a great resurgence of interest in his ideas.

Baldwin took big, complex issues and brought them straight back to the humans involved.  His words were blunt, yet thoughtfully chosen and often elegant.  It was a rare gift.

Tony Norman: The furious eloquence of James Baldwin | Pittsburgh ...
Credit: Pittsburg Post-Gazette

To explain why the average Black American person is so much poorer than the average White, he used the first person singular to speak for a whole race who had been denied the right to earn money for hundreds of years.

I picked the cotton, and I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing.  For nothing.”

He used the example of a White sheriff and his Black victim to illustrate how systemic racism dehumanizes not only its target, but also the person who administers it.

It’s no surprise that he didn’t see America’s system of racial injustice as a Black problem to be solved by Blacks.

Or that when he said “We” — which he frequently did — he meant both Blacks and Whites in America. 

Image may contain: 2 people
James Baldwin and Bob Dylan

For all kinds of reasons, I wish I’d met him, but since I can’t, I’ve been reading articles about him, and watching his speeches.

His 1965 debate against William F. Buckley at Cambridge University in Britain is suspenseful, brilliant, and shockingly relevant today:

Despite its tragic flaws, Baldwin loved America. His books and speeches come from the soul of  a man who loved his country deeply, in spite of how it treated him and others.

“It is a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers, you are the Indian.”

“It comes as a great shock … to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance… has not pledged allegiance to you.”

What’s shocking is how much James Baldwin’s analysis of America’s racial injustice is still relevant today.  In light of the BLM protests, often led by young people,  this statement made me sit up:

“Young people, unlike people my age… the truth, I think, is that their elders have betrayed them.”

So here we are: our generation has soul-searching to do, and some of us have been doing exactly that.  We fought the good fight, but then we got tired and dropped the ball.  Luckily, the young people – their rage, their hope — have shaken us awake. 

I return to James Baldwin’s own words:

“I never have been  in despair about the world.  I’m enraged by it … but I can’t afford despair.  I can’t tell my nephew, my niece … I can’t tell the children there’s no hope.”





31 thoughts on “Rediscovering Novelist-Playwright James Baldwin”

  1. its so easy for everyone to return to the status quo once a great upheaval has occurred. We need to continue to push to change the laws, the practices, the system to finally eradicate this terrible state of racial inequality. I hope this time it really happens.

  2. Every time I read his compelling texts, whether an essay, article, or book, the lens through which I view and study contemporary life adjusts, recalibrates, and focuses more acutely.

  3. That was a heady and heavy debate. I don’t know the answers, but I suspect it will require a combination of both systemic changes and personal responsibility. Thank you Cynthia for exposing me to James Baldwin.

  4. Thank you for highlighting the work and words of James Baldwin. The quotes you use sound so fresh and current for the time we are living through now.

  5. Such an important post, Cynthia. I’m sad to say that I have never read James Baldwin, nor seen that debate before. You had me consulting my library and finding that I have a copy of Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. It will be the next book I read after the current one.

  6. The long standing ovation that James Baldwin received in the debate – and never before had there been a standing ovation – says volumes. My mother read James Baldwin, but I never have, although I’ve been mesmerized by his online interviews. Time to actually bring his written words into my mind. The Fire Next Time and Another Country – I’ll start there. Thank you!

  7. It is wonderful time to re-read or discover this brilliant writer and thinker. Just finished Another Country which was preceded by Go Tell it on the Mountain. If Beale Street Could Talk got me re-reading which at this age is making a different kind of impact. Perhaps it means that there is more awareness if not wisdom in how I ingest his words. A beautiful writer.

    1. I’m getting ready to reread his books myself and I expect it will have a similar impact. It’s almost as if I’m mature enough now to truly understand some of what he wrote!

  8. Thank you for posting the debate, and acquainting and reacquainting readers with James Baldwin, Cynthia. I have not read any of his works, but will do so. He was a brilliant man.

    1. Thanks, Liz. I will check it out. It’s scary to think that Baldwin’s fears have taken place. I want American to improve – I’ve given up on the idea of the moral leader stuff, and have never seen it as ‘leader of the free world’ – a myth. But America is Canada’s closest neighbour and many of my relatives and friends are Americans. so mine is selfish hope, but I still keep hoping.

  9. I first read Baldwin in my teens and I thought things would move forward from there and, like so many white people, I really thought they had. In recent years I have know that this progress had not only crept at an unforgivable snail’s pace, but had stalled. I genuinely believe the push for change today has a new strength. It must succeed for the sake of all mankind.
    On a lighter note, I must have been 6 or 7 when I realised that I could never be King Arthur or any other Knight of the Round Table, or the other heroes in the books I devoured. To his credit, my father, seeing me dressed up playing with a nurse’s kit, suggested I might like to be a doctor.

    1. Oh, I love your response. I feel the same way about the pace of progress. I don’t think I figured out the King Arthur thing till I was older, though. Your father was a smart man, Hilary. Lucky you.

  10. A bright light that began to pave a way we’re unfortunately still paving. But thank you for the reminder of his wise words–I will have to look up more of his writing!

  11. It’s taken me awhile to get around to reading Baldwin but I finally did last year. What a wonderful writer. I only wish I would have started reading him sooner.

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