The Essential James Baldwin

James Baldwin would have turned 100 on Aug. 2 this year. His final works were published almost 40 years ago, just two years before his death in 1987. Yet his writing is as imperative as ever. He wrote with the kind of moral vision that was as comforting as it was chastising — almost surely the influence of the pulpit he once occupied as a child preacher in his native Harlem.

Baldwin never went to college, but he read, by his own count, every book in the library. Remarkably, he never received any of the major literary awards. But he wrote with grace and aplomb across genre: essay, novel, short story, song, children’s literature, drama, poetry and, infamously, screenplay. I say infamously because he was hired to write the script for a Malcolm X biopic, which he did reluctantly. Hollywood made it into a documentary instead and then never released it, leaving Baldwin to publish it himself in book form, as “One Day When I Was Lost.”

Few people are as eloquent with the pen as Baldwin was. He returned again and again to central themes: compassion, radical honesty, and his insistence that we “grow up.” Even after leaving the United States for France in the 1940s, hoping to escape the pervasive anti-Blackness he had experienced and witnessed, he was a fierce observer of race and culture in America. There is as much spiritual intensity as academic rigor in his books, along with a sense that he was trying to capture something as large as life with his words. That wrestling manifested itself in the length of some of his sentences (one totals 321 words). He sacrificed nothing — not style, not substance, not clarity, not beauty, not wisdom — except brevity.

All of his writing — no matter how pointed, critical or angry — isimbued with love. As someone who understood that love is key to liberation, he committed himself to the herculean task of persuading the rest of us. In the documentary short “Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” he says: “Love has never been a popular movement and no one’s ever wanted, really, to be free. The world is held together — really it is held together — by the love and the passion of a very few people.”

But alongside his deep affection for humanity was the abiding despair that attends when someone has decided to be a particular kind of witness, that is to say a prophet, which Baldwin certainly was — not because he could foretell the future, but because as an enormously astute observer of human behavior, he could make connections that escaped everyone else. As he said so sublimely in his 1972 memoir, “No Name in the Street”: “Every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.”

Baldwin’s sexuality and the role it played in his writing are too often overlooked or minimized. Existing at this intersection of identities blessed him with empathy and nuanced insight. He described it simply: “I loved a few women, I loved a few men. That was what saved my life.” But he never truly identified as bisexual, homosexual, gay or queer because he thought it was bizarre to distinguish those realities from more socially acceptable ones.

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