James Baldwin was ahead not only of his time, but of our time too. He was an African American novelist, playwright and essayist whose literary works dissect and challenge social injustices, whilst examining the intersectionality of themes such as masculinity, race, class and sexuality. For example, his novel 'If Beale Street Could Talk' tells a story of Black love in racist America, and has been described as "moving," "painful," yet "optimistic." It was later adapted into a film of the same name, winning an Academy Award in 2018.
A self-proclaimed 'transatlantic commuter,' he spent his time in either New York, New England, or the south of France. He wrote a variety of significant works, including the best-selling essays-turned-book The Fire Next Time (1963). The collection discusses race in American history, as well as the intersections between race and religion, drawing on the Black Nationalism of the Nation of Islam and his experiences as a young Christian.
What Baldwin is most well-known and celebrated for, however, is his social and political activism - more specifically, his ability to eloquently describe the pain and frustration of Black Americans. Aligning himself with the historically moderate factions of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Baldwin's ideological position acted as a middle-ground between the "muscular approach" of Malcolm X and the nonviolence of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
Baldwin did not racially discriminate against those attending his lectures in the 1960s. He lectured to students, white liberals, and anyone who would listen to his ideology, which hinged on white liberals and moderates acting against, rather than turning a blind eye to, racism.
His impassioned orations garnered Baldwin the respect of mainstream press. On the 17th May 1963, Baldwin featured on the cover of Time magazine, who claimed that "there is not another writer...who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of racial ferment in North and South."
He was invited on two occasions to meet with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, in which Baldwin spoke with other civil rights activists on the concerns of the movement. Although it has been noted that the meetings did not conclude satisfactorily, the latter proved important in providing exposure of the civil rights issue, not just as a political issue, but a moral issue. Perhaps there is something that we can learn from this in today's society.
An articulate, potent and strong writer, fighting for intersectional civil rights, Baldwin's legacy continues to set the tone for approaching social injustices.
Links to books mentioned:
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