“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin
This quote, written by James Baldwin in his 1955 essay Notes of a Native Son, has become one of his more famous platitudes, especially during times of upheaval in this country. But exactly who was James Baldwin? Was he an activist? A novelist? All of the above? He is a complicated and fascinating figure who no doubt made his mark on this country in more ways than one. And yet, despite his undeniable intelligence and impact on literary history, he is rarely taught in high schools in this country. The root of this is most likely tied to the reason that Baldwin is in fact so famous—his literature and his essays are some of the most frank accounts of racism that this country has ever seen. He also wrote openly about homosexuality and interracial relationships at a time when both were still illegal in this country. And it is for exactly these reasons that he should be required reading for all Americans. Not only to educate those of us who are more privileged, but so that other children growing up in similar circumstances know that they are not alone.
Who Was James Baldwin?
Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem to a single mother. He never knew his biological father but grew up with his stepfather, David Baldwin, a Baptist minister who his mother married when he was three years old. His parents went on to have eight more children, which led to a chaotic home life. He grew up in poverty and had a complicated relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. Like many children in such circumstances, he longed to escape and transcend the life into which he was born.
In one of his most famous essays, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published originally the New Yorker in 1962 and later in one of his most famous books, The Fire Next Time, he explains the desperation he felt to leave the impoverished Harlem neighborhood where he lived. But as he describes, he saw only two methods of escape: crime or religion. Despite his troubled relationship with his stepfather, he chose religion and became a youth minister for a couple of years from the ages of 14 to 16. While he eventually left the fold to pursue his love of writing, the effect of this time has always been present in the cadence of his words, both verbal and written.
After graduating high school, he moved down to Greenwich Village where he met Richard Wright, who helped to propel his writing career forward. For much of his adult life, he lived between Europe (France mostly) and the U.S., stating that having distance from his home country gave him the space that he needed to write about it truthfully. While living abroad, he published some of his most famous and celebrated works, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and a collection of essays on racism in America, Notes of a Native Son (1955).
In addition to novels and essays, Baldwin dabbled in writing plays, including The Amen Corner, and Blues for Mr. Charlie, which was based on the case of Emmett Till. His plays, though important, never reached the level of fame of his other works.
He was also an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement throughout the ’60s, giving countless interviews and talks on the plight of Black Americans, both at home and abroad. His clear, intelligent, and almost lyrical way of speaking has captivated audiences for decades, and this is one of many reasons that so many of his statements have had such an enduring quality.
An Uneasy Fame
After the publication of The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin was launched on a speaking tour for the College of Racial Equity. He was an odd figure during this time because he was not taking to the streets in the way that other famous Black activists of the time were doing. His was a different kind of platform, that of television interviews, and lectures at universities. He was loved and hated by white and Black Americans alike. Many of his fellow activists at the time saw him as catering too much to white America, saying things such as “the reason people think it’s important to be white is that they think it’s important not to be black” in the same essay that he assures us repeatedly that he does not hate white folks. He made the topic of prejudice palatable for white Americans, while not shying away from his own truths.
There are also rumors that part of why he wasn’t often seen with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X was because Baldwin was openly gay, and this was seen as potentially detrimental to the case for Black liberation. He had an uneasy fame, not truly fitting in anywhere, and yet seemingly desired in many venues. If there is one theme that you can find throughout all of Baldwin’s writing, it is this desire to find a place where he can truly be himself, wholly, and completely without compromise. His many intersecting and disadvantaged identities made this a constant source of strife and struggle throughout his life, and it is probably why he has not been canonized to the degree he deserves.
What is James Baldwin’s Legacy?
While Baldwin is far from a perfect figure, and one that comes with many layers and complexities, his writing about racism and homosexuality is some of the most insightful and heart-wrenching prose that exists on the topics. His ability to dig deep into the prejudice that he experienced in his lifetime and put that into words is the gift that he gave us and one that should not be discounted.
While he is primarily known for his writing on racism, he tackled many difficult topics, that spoke to the complexities of his life growing up as a poor, gay, Black man in a tumultuous time in American history. He also spoke out frequently on religion and the way in which it has been used to oppress Black Americans rather than liberate them, as was often promised. A large portion of The Fire Next Time is dedicated to his thoughts on this topic, stating at one point:
It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next TIme
His rejection of the Christian faith, and his fair skepticism of the ideology of the Nation of Islam touted by Malcolm X and his followers, aligns with his own complicated upbringing and the desire to be true to himself. While many Black Americans found solace in religion, as a gay man that was hardly an option for Baldwin.
James Baldwin was a man wholly of his time and yet lightyears ahead. He spoke with the frankness of someone who saw he had nothing left to lose by simply being himself. He was largely rejected by the Civil Rights activist community, despite being viewed, from a modern perspective, as one of its most important figures. At the same time, he was not generally embraced by white America, precisely because of his penchant for speaking truth to power. Despite his complicated place in the Civil Rights movement, he was still very much affected by the deaths of its leaders and returned to Europe in frustration.
What is very clear about James Baldwin and his legacy is that he saw the issues that plague this country so clearly and he was able to give voice to these concerns in a way that few before or since have been able to do. We owe him a great deal for the truths that he was able to uncover and the risks that he took to communicate these truths. He foretold many of the challenges that we have faced over the decades since his death. If you are interested in taking a dive into his words yourself, there is no better place to start than right here, and you can read James Baldwin quotes here.