James Baldwin was born on this day in 1924 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. He became a courageous, beloved, and sometimes controversial American social critic, activist, and writer of essays, short stories, novels, plays, and songs.
Baldwin’s first novel, the largely autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, earned him critical and popular acclaim, high sales, and specific expectations. He was hailed as the next Richard Wright, the next "voice of black America." Baldwin disappointed expectations — and lost his publisher — when he decided to follow Go Tell It on the Mountain with Giovanni’s Room, which explored the queer identity of its protagonist, a white expatriot named David. Rather than meet others' ideas for what he should do with his career, Baldwin followed his own artistic conscience.
Baldwin seems to have followed this voice throughout his life. It led him to expatriate to Paris for much of his career so that his artistic genius could gain some distance from the racism of the United States. The candid and incisive mirror he held up to white America in Going to Meet the Man and in The Fire Next Time, as well as his famous public debate with William F. Buckley, are the gifts of this distance — and are as relevant to the present day as they were to the 1960s.
Baldwin’s inner voice eventually called him home to be an activist and witness in the civil rights movement. At his death in 1987 he left behind an unfinished manuscript for a reflection on the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. In 2017 the manuscript became part of the award-winning documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
Baldwin used his immense talent to speak into the darkness many Americans did not want to acknowledge, notably the lives lived by queer and black bodies. He demanded of himself and others precise forms of expression that honored the complexity of the human condition.
To Name This Day:
Enlarging God: Baldwin once wrote, "If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him." God is much too big to be contained, thought, or imagined. Yet sometimes when we are tired or discouraged or in a hurry, we make God small because we feel small or because we are trying to make someone else feel small. Take some time today to meditate on the mystery of God and how the fact of that mystery actually enhances our own possibilities/identities as reflections of God.
Criticizing America: Baldwin said, "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." Express your love for your country today, and do so, like Baldwin, publicly: perhaps a yard sign that says what’s on your mind, a letter to a local or national official, a social media post, or a conversation with a business owner.
This reading guide from the We the People Book Club delves into James Baldwin's memoir The Fires Next Time and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, both reflections on growing up black in the United States: