In a divided America, James Baldwin’s fiery critiques reverberate anew
The Trump administration has famously prompted a run on dystopian novels, including George Orwell’s “1984” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
More quietly, it has some looking not to futuristic fiction, but to writings from the 1950s and ’60s, to the words of a man who spoke for the alienated and the self-exiled.
To James Baldwin.
“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,” he wrote in “Notes of a Native Son,” a classic tome of essays illuminating what it is to be black in an America intent on preserving its whiteness.
Take the words out of the 1950s, when they were published, and they could apply to the women in pink hats, the scientists, the Black Lives Matter activists, the climate-change believers and the LGBTQ-rights supporters who have flooded the streets of Washington this year.
Baldwin wanted desperately for his country to deliver on its promise. So does a whole new generation of his fans.
“I’ve been reading a lot of Baldwin right now,” says Justin Simien, the director of the film and Netflix show “Dear White People.”
For Simien, Baldwin is not only a writerly influence, but also a reminder.
“People have gone through these times before,” he says. “They’ve gone through Nixon, they’ve gone through Jim Crow. It gives a weird kind of relief to know there have been times just as difficult.”
Reading Baldwin, says Simien, “gives you some comfort. And it gives me some courage, too.”
Thirty years after his death, Baldwin’s quotes trend on Twitter, as does admiration for him.
“I have been spending my summer with all the #jamesbaldwin novels and I think its making me #political,” wrote one user. After the acquittal of the police officer accused in the Minnesota traffic-stop shooting of Philando Castile, actress Sanaa Lathan tweeted grainy black-and-white footage of Baldwin.
“I’m terrified,” he says in the video, “at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country.” Lathan’s tweet was retweeted more than a thousand times.
Several websites are selling a prayer candle emblazoned with Baldwin’s distinctive face, to be lighted in acknowledgment of “the patron saint of poets, uncles, and exiles.” The singer Morrissey, who has professed his love for Baldwin’s writing, emblazoned the author’s face on a concert T-shirt along with the song lyrics, “Black is how I feel on the inside.” (After complaints that Morrissey, who is white, was using the image of Baldwin to make money, the shirt was pulled.)
Baldwin was also a master of the essay, a form that is enjoying a revival, says Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, which acquired the writer’s personal archive in February and has been holding highly popular pop-up exhibitions since. “We’re returning to essays, and to his vision of a united America, and the way our success and our survival depends on each other.”
Baldwin never went out of style, of course. But a series of factors have made the man, and his gimlet-eyed critiques, seem fresh again.
Ta-Nehisi Coates said that a chance rereading of Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time
” was the springboard to his own 2015 masterwork, “Between the World and Me
The Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, houses 70 Baldwin-related items, among them his scalloped-glass inkwell; a photo of an amused-looking Baldwin, dapper in a gray wool suit and turtleneck, a long cigarette coolly dangling between his fingers, standing beside a mural; a postcard from Italy (“Surrounded by my countrymen, who have certainly not improved,” he writes).
But the writer’s words, engraved on walls throughout the museum, loom largest, appearing again and again to visitors — more than a million so far this year.
The biggest wave of attention has come from Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary using Baldwin’s own writings that was nominated for an Oscar this year. Juxtaposed against the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., and the arrests of Black Lives Matter activists elsewhere, it helped awaken a new generation to the writer’s America — ugly, uncompromising, wedded to its own origin myth.
Baldwin in 1963 in Mississippi, where he visited the NAACP’s Medgar Evers. (Photo by Steve Schapiro)
“There has been such a revival of interest in Baldwin,” says Steve Schapiro, a photojournalist who first read the author in 1962, when the New Yorker magazine published Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”
Baldwin’s words left Schapiro feeling restless. He rang up the writer and persuaded him to let Schapiro tag along as a photographer for Life magazine as Baldwin undertook a speaking tour of the Deep South. For a month in 1963, Schapiro shadowed the writer and captured the anger forming againstAfrican Americans’ demands for equal treatment.
Today, Schapiro is 82, and the publisher Taschen is using the photos he shot at the tender age of 29 to illustrate a new edition of “The Fire Next Time.” The timing, Schapiro says, couldn’t be better.
“If you’re black, you say, ‘Yeah that’s the way it is,’ ” Schapiro says of Baldwin’s work. “If you’re white, you have to open your eyes. Any immigrant is going to feel what Baldwin or any black people felt at that time.”
Only a few years ago, some fretted that Baldwin was too fiery, too controversial to teach to American youth.
Koritha Mitchell, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, recently began teaching seminars on Baldwin. And she has a reason for why it seemed urgent.
“Baldwin was expert in exposing the unearned privilege of white men,” she says. “It’s a subject that we became silent on during the Obama presidency. And that’s part of what enabled Trump.”
“I think that Baldwin has always been relevant,” adds Young. “But I think he seems especially prophetic now.”