The Inimitable James Baldwin

Today is the anniversary of James Baldwin’s birthday. He was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, who also rose to prominence as a civil rights activist in the 60s, and who was adored by fellow active artists and creators such as Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, Dick Gregory, Margaret Mead, Marlon Brando – the list goes on and on.

There’s a photo of James with Marlon Brando at this link.

James Baldwin dancing with Lorraine Hansberry. Photograph by Steve Schapiro. Available in the book Schapiro’s Heroes.

The adjective most applied to Mr. Baldwin in popular media is “eloquent,” and  though it’s been and can be a loaded word, it’s not been overcome by a better one. But though “eloquent” can join “articulate” in the list of words that surprised White academics apply to Black folks who can make their points very clear and conduct debates with solid arguments and factual examples, as though it was a shocking trait for them to have, the fact of the matter is that James Baldwin was eloquent to the extent that he could have listeners jumping to their feet to applaud him, and have readers putting their books down for a moment to let the rapture wash over them. He was an incredible writer, but also, and perhaps most importantly in the relatively new age of accessible film recorders and television cameras poised to debate race, he was eloquent in speech, off the cuff. He never faltered, he very rarely uttered a crutch word – in fact, I can’t remember an “um” from him, though there must have been one at some point, surely.

Nina Simone and James Baldwin seated on a couch facing each other, in conversation. James is holding the stub of a cigarette and smiling impishly at Nina.

Nina Simone and James Baldwin, a still from the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?

The impact that James Baldwin had at the time, and still has today, is massive and cannot be overstated. His thoughts stand up today because so much of the issue has not been resolved in the US, but also, his ability to throw down arguments comes from the fact that his view is both furious and kind, both accusatory and sympathetic, to all the parts and players in the country in which he found himself. And as he grew up and began to understand what race meant, his keen observations about the nature of humanity and how things got corrupted and twisted up for the oppressor and the oppressed, blossomed into perfect points that he could unspool and fit into any allotted time slot, long or short, and make people understand. He could debate absolutely anyone, and I’ve never seen him “lose” an argument. The notion that there can be a winner in a debate about racial disparity in the US is another matter – no one can win until we all do. No one can be free until we all are. As long as there is a target, there is a war which no one can win. Baldwin’s non-fiction work and speech reflects that though there is ample reason to be angry when injustice is present, there is the capacity for great love among human beings and it should be uplifted whenever possible.

Contact Sheet of Photos of James Baldwin by Jack Manning in 1972, taken for the New York Times. From the article Looking Again at James Baldwin

Baldwin was also a writer of fiction, of beautiful stories of ordinary people, the people he knew and could project himself into. One of these stories is If Beale Street Could Talk, about a young couple, Tish and Fonny, in Memphis, Tennessee, who are on track to start a life together when Fonny is wrongfully imprisoned. One of Baldwin’s greatest fans, a sublime artist in his own right, is film director Barry Jenkins, who directed the exquisite film Moonlight. Today, Mr. Jenkins released the first trailer from his film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk, and you can already see that it’s gotten the tender care it deserves in Mr. Jenkins’ capable hands.

Cover of the book If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

The higher resolution of the video trailer, available for full-screen viewing on YouTube, is right here:

The film stars KiKi Layne as Tish, Stephan James as Fonny, and also stars Regina King, Brian Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Teyonah Parris and Finn Wittrock, among others, and is slated for initial release on January 11, 2019.

For more James Baldwin, we are rich with media to explore more on this incredible thinker on the anniversary of his birthday and beyond.

Here are some of his greatest moments captured on film:

We mentioned Margaret Mead above. There exists a book which is now out of print called A Rap On Race and it’s the transcript of a discussion between Margaret Mead and James Baldwin. We’re happy to provide a link to the audio version of this talk, which they had in 1971. While the discussion is very much of its time, it’s still pertinent, and still valuable to revisit because of its relevance today.

If the above link disappears for any reason, you can grab the mp3 version of the audio file of A Rap On Race right here.

And no blog entry about James Baldwin would be complete without his masterful side eye expression in this gif, taken from the 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark above. Here it is in context:

Baldwin: The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dull as the future of this country. It is entirely up to the American people, and not our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they’ve relied on so long. What Black people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a “nigger” in the first place. Because I am not a “nigger,” I am a man. But if you think I’m a “nigger,” it means you need him. The question you’ve got to ask yourself, the White population of this country has got to ask itself, north and south, because it’s one country and for a Negro, there is no difference between the north and the south. It’s just a difference in the way they castrate you, but the fact of the castration is the American fact. If i’m not the “nigger” here, and if you invented him, you, the White people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether I was able to ask that question.

James Baldwin’s epic side eye

Clark: As a negro, and as an American, I can only hope that America has the strength and the positive…

Baldwin: The moral strength.

Clark: …to ask and answer that question…

Baldwin: Simply to face that question. Face that question.

Clark: …in an affirmative and a constructive way. Thank you very much.

Baldwin: Thank you, Ken.

Happy birthday, James.