James Baldwin’s birthday of August 2 has come and gone, but I wanted to use today’s post to think about the place of Baldwin in American intellectual history. Previously at this website, we have discussed Baldwin in numerous ways—from using close reading to compare his work to that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, to talking about his impact on American liberalism and the ways in which he can be used as part of a classroom lesson. It would be a mistake, however, to not spend a moment thinking about how this writer has had such an out-sized influence on intellectual history since the early nineteen-sixties. At the same time, Baldwin’s works and arguments with other writers also bring into sharp relief other trends from modern American intellectual history.
His jousting with white conservatives and liberals alike serves as a reminder of the complicated politics of race—politics that we, of course, still live with today. The debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley at Oxford in 1965 is just the starkest example. That debate is worth watching, however, not just for seeing two influential figures debate each other, but remembering the cross-Atlantic currents within which the Civil Rights Movement existed. Think of Malcolm X’s own debate at Oxford the previous year, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s various speeches in the United Kingdom (or for that matter, his forays into Canada and elsewhere), and even Baldwin’s other speeches in Britain. From the moment he set foot in France in 1948, Baldwin thought about race from not just an American, but an international context too. Thankfully, in recent years work has not just been done on Baldwin in France and Switzerland—the traditional places thought about with Baldwin’s travels abroad—but also his numerous trips to Turkey as well. Placing American intellectuals in international context is something that we should keep in mind, especially with Baldwin’s Cold War-era and decolonization context.
Zeroing in on Baldwin’s writings and interviews for a second, I cannot also but help think about the 1968 interview he did shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. for Esquire magazine. The death of King hit Baldwin hard—as it did many black Americans, regardless of their fame or political power. In “How to Cool It,” Baldwin’s answers remind us all of the troubled place race relations held in the American psyche during 1968. Considering that the release of Detroit this week has historians looking back at a seminal racial conflagration, and keeping in mind modern concerns about black lives mattering the precarious state of voting rights, affirmative action, and immigration, Baldwin’s answers would not seem out of place in a modern interview. I have no right to speak for Baldwin. And I abhor putting words in the mouths of those who’ve been long gone. But Baldwin stating, “It is not for us to cool it,” at the start of the interview seems like the perfect phrase to describe our modern discord.
Baldwin’s interview is also fascinating to read for his denunciation of the War on Poverty, which he felt had not gone far enough. Baldwin’s intersectionality—seeing the complicated nature of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in American life—means that intellectual historians have so much left to mine from his work. As a person who focuses on the American South, I am also intrigued by his writings on regionalism, north and south, in the United States. I could, of course, keep going, but with Baldwin’s birthday only a few days ago—and our “Summer of Love” roundtable about 1967 just coming to an end—I want to launch a discussion in the comments about what Baldwin means to American intellectual history. The shadow of James Baldwin looms over America, now more than ever.