The influence of James Baldwin over American thought has grown significantly in recent years. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of his death and this Brandon Tensley essay about him is worth your time.
Thirty years after Baldwin’s death, though, America has found itself in a Baldwin renaissance. This resurfacing of Baldwin is ubiquitous, from journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning book Between the World and Me (2015); to director Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro (2016); to the fact that, over the past year, Baldwin’s book sales have improved by an impressive 110 percent, according to some estimates. That Baldwin is now re-emerging says lots about Baldwin—but it says even more about us.
Baldwin was a prognosticator. There’s a scene toward the end of Take This Hammer—a 1963 documentary, featuring Baldwin, that sets out to investigate “the real situation of Negroes in [San Francisco], as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present”—in which Baldwin unriddles “the nigger.” “We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him,” explains Baldwin, smoking his ever-present cigarette. “If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to give you your problem back. How else to explain Baldwin’s power? In his day, as a writer and public intellectual, he crossed swords on innumerable fronts: He excoriated the illiberalism, the “moral bankruptcy,” of white Christians; he pilloried what he saw as the Kennedys’ sometimes gauzy commitment to civil rights reforms; he even criticized the work of his friend Richard Wright (according to Baldwin, Wright’s novel Native Son reifies racial stereotypes). What Baldwin knew, on an uncanny level, was how to identify America’s ills, without opting for the alluring comforts of complacent platitudes—think of the post-racial delusions many Americans clung to during former President Barack Obama’s tenure. Instead, Baldwin took the issues other northern intellectuals had historically ignored, and surfaced them.
Yet both blacks and whites punished Baldwin, not only in his day, but also in death: for not being “politically clean,” in the way that posterity has sought to make other key black figures popularly palatable, and also for being open about his homosexuality. Some mid-century civil rights activists disparaged him as “Martin Luther Queen,” while others believed that his homosexuality signaled a personal sickness. Martin Luther King Jr. was himself apparently “put off by the poetic exaggeration in Baldwin’s approach to race issues.” (Discrimination also loomed over Baldwin as a child: “On every street corner, I was called a faggot,” he once reflected of his adolescence.) Between 1958 and 1974, the Federal Bureau of Investigation even amassed a 1,884-page file on Baldwin, having marked him as a dangerous pervert, one requiring state surveillance. And, in more recent years, “some parents and schools have challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence, and profanity in Baldwin’s work,” a 2014 New York Times article reports. “Sex—interracial and intraracial, gay and straight—is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.”
No matter how ardent his disciples, until recently, mainstream society often seemed to handle him with trepidation.
What to make of recent changes? A pessimistic take might view the recent embrace of Baldwin, coinciding with the age of Donald Trump, as a passing moment—a fashionably virtuous bit of posturing, to last maybe a season. (Let me tell you about this Baldwin passage I read the other day!) But that reading doesn’t seem quite right. Above all, it doesn’t really get at why Baldwin’s work keeps burrowing so deeply into ongoing conversations about social injustice. As William J. Maxwell, associate professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, writes in James Baldwin: The FBI File, “Baldwin’s selected opinions have made him a virtual contemporary of Black Lives Matter. His lush and un-pragmatic style, by contrast, is a tool through which the felt pastness of a selective black past can be measured for present use.” Indeed, in 2016, a best-selling anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, was released, its name inspired directly by Baldwin’s own book of essays, 1963’s The Fire Next Time.