James Baldwin's immutable relevance

Image credit: Tullio Saba

Seven months ago, arriving in Cambridge as an intrepid fresher, I brought with me two posters with which to guild my pokey first year room. The first was a black-and-white photograph of Albert Camus, the French existentialist, smoking an unfiltered cigarette and glowering sexily into the middle distance. It was intended principally as branding, informing any would-be visitors that I’m *cool and cultured*, so they better watch out. The other poster I felt more personally attached to; I understood it, it’s significance, it’s importance – or so I thought. The poster was of James Baldwin, the African-American writer and social critic, and was inscribed with a quote: "true rebels, after all, are as rare as true lovers, and, in both cases, to mistake a fever for a passion can destroy one’s life".

I had first come across Baldwin earlier in the year after seeing ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, a film based on the assassinations of three civil right leaders he knew in the 1960s (Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King), narrated by Samuel L. Jackson entirely in Baldwin’s own words taken from both his published and unpublished works. What I remember most about the film was the lyricism and beauty of Baldwin’s language; it’s soulful lilt and searing honesty striking me as something rarely found in work so burningly political and worldly. I bought the poster. The more I read of Baldwin, however, the more I came to see that the beauty, poeticism and pain which typified his prose were not merely embellishments but so inextricably bound to his philosophy that without them his words would become hollow, his work a fever rather than a passion.

Baldwin is one of those writers which you come across maybe two or three times in a lifetime who seem to belong both utterly to their times and are yet universal, who make you feel as though everything they say was something you either wish you had thought of, had thought of but never been able to put so well, or never thought of but which now makes perfect sense. In his essay collection, The Fire Next Time (1963), presented in the form of two letters, Baldwin incorporates an intensely personal evocation of his early life in Harlem and an excoriating condemnation of the terrible legacy of racial injustice. "Negroes in this country", he writes, "are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black."  Without straying from a deep, interrogative engagement with history, Baldwin delves into the fault-lines of power, the deep-rooted tectonic forces – socio-economic, political, cultural – which act beneath the surface over years and centuries to form our world: "white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the colour of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction." He never, however, falters in his belief in the mutability of these forces or in his faith in us, the rebels: "It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant – birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so – and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change."

What is so brilliant about Baldwin, however, is the extraordinary variety of his writing, its universal scope, its delight in detail. In his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), for example, which draws on his boyhood in a religious community in 1930s Harlem, Baldwin tells the story of young John Grimes, destined to become a preacher like his fanatic and abusive father. But, through the medium of prayer, the lives of three of John’s relatives, his mother, father, and aunt, their hopes and guilt, their secret sins and public personas, are revealed in full amidst an atmosphere "soaked in the Bible and the blues", as Andrew O’Hagan writes in his introduction. Of Baldwin’s later work, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962), stand out as powerfully personal explorations of two issues deeply embedded in Baldwin’s own experience, homosexual love and racial issues on both sides of the Atlantic respectively, whilst also being executed with Baldwin’s typical eye for beauty, vivacious description and scope for wide-ranging experience.

The Baldwin poster, therefore, does more for me than motivate me through an essay crisis, reminding me why I do an English degree, and why it all matters. It reminds me of the kind of rebels we need in the dark times we find ourselves in today; of the beauty that can be found in pain, of the hope that can be taken from suffering, and of a way of articulating the anguish and discontent felt by so many of us which I believe to be of paramount importance if our generation is to find its way. So read it: "Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise."

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest