Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

Every writer hopes to be sur­vived by his work. In the case of James Bald­win, the 32 years since his death seem only to have increased the rel­e­vance of the writ­ing he left behind. Con­sist­ing of nov­els, essays, and even a chil­dren’s book, Bald­win’s body of work offers dif­fer­ent points of entry to dif­fer­ent read­ers. Many begin with with Go Tell it on the Moun­tain, the semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal debut nov­el in which he mounts a cri­tique of the Pen­te­costal Church. Oth­ers may find their gate­way in Bald­win’s fic­tion­al treat­ment of desire and love under adverse cir­cum­stances: among men in Paris in Gio­van­ni’s Room, for exam­ple, or teenagers in Mem­phis in If Beale Street Could Talk. But unlike most nov­el­ists, Bald­win’s name con­tin­ues to draw just as many acco­lades — if not more of them — for his non­fic­tion.

Those look­ing to read Bald­win’s essays would do well to start with his first col­lec­tion of them, 1955’s Notes of a Native Son. In assem­bling pieces he orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines like Harper’s and the Par­ti­san Review, the book reflects the impor­tance to the young Bald­win of what would become the major themes of his career, like race and expa­tri­ate life.

Though res­i­dent at dif­fer­ent times in Turkey, Switzer­land, and (right up until his dying day) France, he nev­er took his eyes off his home­land of the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca for long. Nor, in fact, did the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca take its eyes off him. “Over the course of the 1960s,” says Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor Christi­na Greer in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed intro­duc­tion to Bald­win above, “the FBI amassed almost 2,000 doc­u­ments” as they inves­ti­gat­ed his back­ground and activ­i­ties.

That the U.S. gov­ern­ment saw Bald­win as so polit­i­cal­ly dan­ger­ous is rea­son enough to read his books. But as one of Amer­i­ca’s most promi­nent men of let­ters, he could hard­ly be writ­ten off as a sim­ple fire­brand. Though known for his inci­sive views of white and black Amer­i­ca, he believed that every­one, what­ev­er their race, “was inex­tri­ca­bly enmeshed in the same social fab­ric,” that “peo­ple are trapped in his­to­ry, and his­to­ry is trapped in them.” As he found recep­tive audi­ences for his argu­ments in print and on tele­vi­sion, “his fac­ul­ty with words led the FBI to view him as a threat.” But that very fac­ul­ty with words — insep­a­ra­ble, as in all the great­est essay­ists, from the astute­ness of the per­cep­tions they express — has assured him a still-grow­ing read­er­ship in the 21st cen­tu­ry. Con­tend­ing with the most volatile social and polit­i­cal issues of his time cer­tain­ly did­n’t low­er Bald­win’s pro­file, but any giv­en page of his prose sug­gests that what­ev­er he’d cho­sen to write about, we’d still be read­ing him today.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Great Cul­tur­al Icons Talk Civ­il Rights: James Bald­win, Mar­lon Bran­do, Har­ry Bela­fonte & Sid­ney Poiti­er (1963)

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delight­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book, Lit­tle Man Lit­tle Man: A Sto­ry of Child­hood (1976)

James Bald­win: Wit­ty, Fiery in Berke­ley, 1979

Chris Rock Reads James Baldwin’s Still Time­ly Let­ter on Race in Amer­i­ca: “We Can Make What Amer­i­ca Must Become”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Sarah Hott says:

    Thanks for show­cas­ing this great video. Hope­ful­ly it will help intro­duce a new gen­er­a­tion to Bald­win’s genious. Just have one thing to add– I think the char­ac­ters in If Beale Street Could Talk are from Harlem instead of Mem­phis.

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