Skip to main content

How James Baldwin Gives Our Problem Back to Us

In recent years, American audiences have embraced Baldwin more fully than ever before.
James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial in Kengsington Gardens, London.

James Baldwin on the Albert Memorial in Kengsington Gardens, London.

By the time James Baldwin died at the age of 63, on December 1st, 1987, he'd already left an indelible mark on American literature and culture. He'd published several successful novels—including his 1953 debut, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain—written scores of essays for various magazines, and sparred famously with other intellectual titans of his day. Baldwin had become an indispensable chronicler—of race, but also of America itself. In her eulogy for Baldwin, published in the New York Times in December of 1987, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who'd been a friend of Baldwin's, wrote that his writing had "made American English honest—genuinely international. [He] exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern, dialogic, representative, humane.... In [his] hands language was handsome again."

For all that, though, Baldwin hadn't, until recent years, enjoyed the same sort of persistence in popular memory as other major black artists—the institutional recognition, outside certain literary circles, enjoyed by Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou or Zora Neale Hurston. Nor had he been an immediate touchstone in conversations about social injustice, the way Malcolm X has long been. No, Baldwin's work had fallen "out of favor and off of syllabi" and been sidelined to rare pop culture moments of supposed "new relevance," as Benjamin Anastas writes in the New Republic.

Thirty years after Baldwin's death, though, America has found itself in a Baldwin renaissance. This resurfacing of Baldwin is ubiquitous, from journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates' award-winning book Between the World and Me (2015); to director Raoul Peck's Academy Award-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro (2016); to the fact that, over the past year, Baldwin's book sales have improved by an impressive 110 percent, according to some estimates. That Baldwin is now re-emerging says lots about Baldwin—but it says even more about us.

Baldwin was a prognosticator. There's a scene toward the end of Take This Hammer—a 1963 documentary, featuring Baldwin, that sets out to investigate "the real situation of Negroes in [San Francisco], as opposed to the image San Francisco would like to present"—in which Baldwin unriddles "the nigger." "We have invented the nigger. I didn't invent him. White people invented him," explains Baldwin, smoking his ever-present cigarette. "If I am not the nigger, and if it's true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? ... Well, he's unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I'm going to give you your problem back: You're the nigger, baby, it isn't me."

I'm going to give you your problem back. How else to explain Baldwin's power? In his day, as a writer and public intellectual, he crossed swords on innumerable fronts: He excoriated the illiberalism, the "moral bankruptcy," of white Christians; he pilloried what he saw as the Kennedys' sometimes gauzy commitment to civil rights reforms; he even criticized the work of his friend Richard Wright (according to Baldwin, Wright's novel Native Son reifies racial stereotypes). What Baldwin knew, on an uncanny level, was how to identify America's ills, without opting for the alluring comforts of complacent platitudes—think of the post-racial delusions many Americans clung to during former President Barack Obama's tenure. Instead, Baldwin took the issues other northern intellectuals had historically ignored, and surfaced them.

Yet both blacks and whites punished Baldwin, not only in his day, but also in death: for not being "politically clean," in the way that posterity has sought to make other key black figures popularly palatable, and also for being open about his homosexuality. Some mid-century civil rights activists disparaged him as "Martin Luther Queen," while others believed that his homosexuality signaled a personal sickness. Martin Luther King Jr. was himself apparently "put off by the poetic exaggeration in Baldwin's approach to race issues." (Discrimination also loomed over Baldwin as a child: "On every street corner, I was called a faggot," he once reflected of his adolescence.) Between 1958 and 1974, the Federal Bureau of Investigation even amassed a 1,884-page file on Baldwin, having marked him as a dangerous pervert, one requiring state surveillance. And, in more recent years, "some parents and schools have challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence, and profanity in Baldwin's work," a 2014 New York Times article reports. "Sex—interracial and intraracial, gay and straight—is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns."

No matter how ardent his disciples, until recently, mainstream society often seemed to handle him with trepidation.

What to make of recent changes? A pessimistic take might view the recent embrace of Baldwin, coinciding with the age of Donald Trump, as a passing moment—a fashionably virtuous bit of posturing, to last maybe a season. (Let me tell you about this Baldwin passage I read the other day!) But that reading doesn't seem quite right. Above all, it doesn't really get at why Baldwin's work keeps burrowing so deeply into ongoing conversations about social injustice. As William J. Maxwell, associate professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, writes in James Baldwin: The FBI File, "Baldwin's selected opinions have made him a virtual contemporary of Black Lives Matter. His lush and un-pragmatic style, by contrast, is a tool through which the felt pastness of a selective black past can be measured for present use." Indeed, in 2016, a best-selling anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, was released, its name inspired directly by Baldwin's own book of essays, 1963's The Fire Next Time.

You could think of today's turn to Baldwin, then, as revealing a new paradigm: Activists and thinkers and writers are embracing not only Baldwin's glamor and mastery, which were never truly contested, but also the aspects of him—the crosshatching stigmas—that were, for years, efficiently kept at arm's length: his blackness, his queerness, his black queerness. Audiences are working through Baldwin's understanding of the world and its treachery, his generous optimism despite this treachery, in ways they hadn't done before.

Baldwin's present-day prominence as a cultural and political figure—or, more exactly, this broad, belated embrace of his richly complex and emotionally exquisite ideas—arguably has less to do with him than it does with us. For so long we weren't ready for him to give us our problem back.

Now, perhaps, we are.