Monday, August 2, 2010

Happy Birthday James Baldwin

"A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled."

Novelist, playwright, essayist, prophet, cultural critic, advocate - all of these words describe one of my favorite writers. A genius who still speaks to me despite being dead nearly two decades.

Today in 1924, James Baldwin was born in Harlem. Little did his neighborhood or his country know that the son of a preacher man would set them on fire with words that would challenge and enlighten them.

Baldwin combined his experiences as a child preacher, his insecurities about his appearance, his love of literature from a teacher and his life to write some of the most passionate essays regarding race, the American dream, education and identity. His best work was challenging America to look at themselves instead of always looking at the problem.

"I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

But Baldwin never wanted to be classified as a Black writer or a gay writer. He wanted to be described as a witness. It was something he got from the church where people would testify to the truth. All he did was write how he felt and do his best to speak truth through his eyes. (And there's where I get my label of witness from)

I read a book of Baldwin's essays in college and we analyzed his writing style. The first piece I ever read stuck to me because he used the occasion of his father's funeral to write about a riot in Harlem and also connect it to his own battle with eliminating hate after being denied service by a White waitress and blowing up at her.

Here was a man who channeled his rage into his words, not his actions. The Fire Next Time is one of the most influential books I own and it was a warning for 1960's America to deal with their slowly growing problem before things erupted (which they eventually did).

"To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger."

Even though he was fiery, he was accessible. His words may have set people off but there was something about him that drew people in. He was a social butterfly (as I once saw in a one-man play based on him) and that allowed him to know how to talk to people.

The sad thing is the glimmer of optimism in his earlier writing faded after the 1960's and his brilliant piece "No Name in the Street" shows him lost as he mourns the deaths of the Kennedys, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. His work in the 70's still has bite but there's a different element.

I took Baldwin's biography with me when I covered the Jena 6 rally live in Louisiana. I figured if I was going to be a witness to history, who better to inspire me than the ultimate witness. It inspired me to try to be a writer who lives up to that ideal and realizing that I had been like that all the time in my poetry.

On what would've been his 86th birthday, I wonder what he would say about society today, especially the rise of gay rights. I wonder how he would challenge this technological society to wake up from their complacency. I see a lot of him in Tim Wise and others who challenge society.

Here's to you Mr. Baldwin. Thank you for teaching me to be shaken up, write with conviction and hope for the good in people without being afraid to tell it like it is.

"The paradox of education is precisely this - that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated."


  1. Great philosophy. I empathize with much of his life experiences.

    This is precisely the mindset with which I resonate most. I'll be reading. Thanks!

  2. He's got a great story in addition to his writings that still have bite. We studied his work in college and I understand the sizzle of his words and passion that jumps at you.

    You'll learn a lot from him. He inspires me every time I read an essay.

  3. I'm excited for this new discovery! (and thanks for not suspending my black card...)