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‘Know Your Baldwin’

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Thirty years after his death, civil-rights icon James Baldwin inspires activists in Houston and beyond.

“We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression, and denial of my humanity, and right to exist.” —James Baldwin

By Andrew Edmonson

James Baldwin is back with a vengeance. In the last decade of his life, some critics dismissed the work of the great American novelist, essayist, and chronicler of the civil-rights movement as out of touch and irrelevant. Thirty years after his death, his writing has been hailed by a new generation of artists and activists as profoundly relevant and as fresh as tomorrow.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won the National Book Award for his best-selling Between the World and Me, has acknowledged Baldwin as a seminal influence. Celebrities like Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Janelle Monáe, and Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o have appeared in a series of videos encouraging viewers to read his works and “know your Baldwin.”

In 2016, director Raoul Peck unveiled I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning documentary delving deeply and eloquently into Baldwin’s life and work—and the great gay artist’s  continued relevance in the Black Lives Matter era of Ferguson and Philando Castile shootings.

I Am Not Your Negro was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for best documentary. A. O. Scott, a critic for the New York Times, pronounced the film “life altering.”

“You would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with more clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history,” Scott wrote.

At 8 p.m. on January 15, I Am Not Your Negro comes to Houston Public Media’s Channel 8 as part of the Independent Lens documentary series.

Finding His Voice

Born into poverty in Harlem on August 2, 1924, Baldwin was the eldest of nine children and spent much of his youth caring for his siblings. He showed an early gift for writing. From ages 14 to 16, he served as a youth minister at a Pentecostal church, drawing large crowds and developing a prophetic public voice that would prove invaluable as a civil-rights advocate in the 1960s. Demoralized by the country’s constant and oppressive racism in the 1940s, he moved to France in 1948, where he would spend much of the rest of his life.

When a journalist asked him if being born poor, black, and gay had made him feel disadvantaged, Baldwin replied, “No, I thought I had hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, you had to find a way to use it.”

Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin during the recording of ‘The Negro and The American Promise” in 1963. (Courtesy of the National Archives)

And use it he did. In the 1950s, he began to produce the great works that would define his legacy. His novel Giovanni’s Room, a candid and complex examination of a homosexual relationship between two white men in Paris, was published in 1956, a decade before the gay-liberation movement started to heat up. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son hit bestseller lists in 1961 by selling more than a million copies. He also created two plays: The Amen Corner (1954), and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till, an inflection point in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s.

Speaking Painful Truths to Power

In 1963, Baldwin published his magnum opus, The Fire Next Time, one of the decade’s most important books about race relations.

“There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin’s sentences and the cool of his tone—something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem,” observed the American novelist and essayist Darryl Pinkney.

In 1963, Baldwin landed on the cover of Time magazine and soon became an ubiquitous presence as a public intellectual on American television throughout the 1960s, eloquently describing for white America the pernicious effects of racism and passionately making the case for the need for racial justice.

He frequently spoke painful truths to power, and in doing so, infuriated prominent figures ranging from Robert Kennedy to J. Edgar Hoover. The potency of his witness was so strong that the FBI maintained a 1,884-page case file on Baldwin, characterizing him as a national security threat and “a well-known pervert” for his open homosexuality.

‘Unapologetically Black and Gay’

In 1979, Baldwin began work on Remember This House, his personal meditation on the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, who were all close friends. Although the manuscript remained unfinished at the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, it provided the springboard for Raoul Peck’s documentary.

Using passages from Remember This House, as well as letters and notes written by Baldwin in the 1970s, Peck enlisted actor Samuel L. Jackson to bring Baldwin’s prose to life with his rich, resonant voice.

“James Baldwin was one of the first authors ever where I felt not only at home, but [that] he was speaking directly to me,” Peck observed in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. “He gave me, very early on, the instruments I needed to understand and to even deconstruct the world around me.”

Baldwin’s writing and his life also speak to Houston activist Brandon Mack. “James Baldwin was unapologetically black and gay during a time when the world wanted him to be apologetic and silent about his race and sexuality,” Mack says. “His vocal challenges to society’s negative views and injustices against black people, while also fully remaining proud of all of his identities, is one of the reasons why he is an inspiration.

“I draw a lot of strength from his words and works as I carry out my activism work,” Mack adds. “If he could do the work during a time where society was even less accepting of black and gay people, then I can do the work today, even as we still face anti-blackness and homophobia within society.”

This article appears in the January 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

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