U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Continuing Significance of James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924. As we celebrate what would have been his 94th birthday, it is critical to note how important Baldwin remains in modern debates about race and America’s future. With the release of a trailer for the film If Beale Street Could Talk, based on Baldwin’s novel, it’s more apparent than ever that we just can’t get enough Baldwin.

Reading some of the classic works written by Baldwin makes clear that he never saw his essays, plays, and novels as merely existing within the context of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Works such as the collected essays of No Name in the Street, released in 1972, make this especially clear. Written against the backdrop of an America that had lost both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., No Name in the Street illustrates Baldwin’s growing frustration with an America that refused to learn from its past. Baldwin wrote: “To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend—which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn—and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.”[1]

Such sentiments would not seem out of place in 2018. With writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zandria Robinson, and Jesmyn Ward—among so many others—harking back to Baldwin’s fierce, unapologetic, and loving critique of American society, it falls to intellectual historians to think harder about some of these connections. Many critically acclaimed works of literature will speak to both the era in which it was written and also have something to say to generations to come.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a few clips that, again, remind us how relevant Baldwin is in 2018:

The Cambridge Debate With William F. Buckley—seeing these two intellectual giants of the 1960s debate is not just fun to watch, but it is important for understanding how their views on race and American society continue to influence us today.

James Baldwin with Dick Gregory in London—this 1969 rap session shows Baldwin making connections between African Americans and people of African descent across the Diaspora, including in London. The theme of how “people of color” relate across geographic and geo-political lines rises up numerous times in Baldwin’s works. It’s here that I should note Baldwin’s extensive experiences with Turkey—we often talk only about his sojourns to Paris, but Istanbul played an equally important role in his life. James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade by Magdalena Zaborowska is an excellent introduction to this period of Baldwin’s life.

Baldwin and the 1980s—we’ll soon be publishing a review of the book James Baldwin and the 1980s which argues that we do a disservice to Baldwin’s life and career if we ignore his writings in the 1980s. Three clips also offer a window into how Baldwin was wrestling with both his own legacy and living in the Age of Reagan: this interview with Mavis Nicholson; his speech to the National Press Club in December, 1986; and a clip from his time as Visiting Professor of Literature at Hampshire College in the 1980s.

[1] James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, p. 194.