Tuesday, August 2, 2011

James Baldwin, American Intellectual Giant

James Baldwin, Aug 2,1924 - Dec 1,1987
“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

August 2nd marks the birthday of the late James Baldwin, one of the most important American intellectuals of the 20th Century. Baldwin articulated his humanity as a black gay man through a number of novels, essays, plays,  and through his activism and sheer compassion.

Many scholars and activists note the prophetic quality of much of Baldwin’s writing, which seems even more prophetic today. James Baldwin is not easy to teach, because he is searing, unrelenting, and unapologetic—those are qualities that don’t comport well with polite society. That is why I love him so much—he doesn’t sugarcoat American truths and realities.

My parents read Baldwin—The Fire Next Time, Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, etc., and I remember him as a fascinating presence (those huge eyes) from my earliest television memories on talk shows that focused on the Civil Rights movement during the Johnson and Nixon eras, respectively. He was what I would now call “a little guy,” in terms of his physical stature, but his charismatic presence more than made up for it. It was (and remains) difficult to take one’s eyes off him.  

So much of James Baldwin's work seems to reflect my own thoughts and feelings on a number of issues that continue to plague our society—not just issues of racial justice, but also the trend toward self-interest, greed, and meanness. What would Jimmy say about the world today, about our American society today?

In New Orleans, 1963
I think it is important to acknowledge the continued social urgency contained in Baldwin’s oeuvre, as there are those who still manage to manipulate our young people into thinking that certain types of posturing are effective stand-ins for manhood. For those who continue to mislead our young people, who continue to perpetuate tired heterosexist paradigms of black masculinity and virility—I suggest you take a look at James Baldwin, a true black man.

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 is available at the Plainfield Public Library, along with most of Baldwin’s other writings.  The excellent American Masters documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket is available through California Newsreel.

Baldwin is ubiquitous on YouTube, so I urge everyone to learn more about his life and the legacy he has left behind by checking out some of the clips. Below is an audio clip (with stills) of Baldwin singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”—I chose this clip because I love this song, and hearing Baldwin sing it gives me chills.

All best,


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