James Baldwin's legacy: seventeen years after his death, at age 63, one of America's most influential and unsettling writers still has the authoritative voice of that fabled first ancestor.

Author:Depardieu, Benoit
Position:Tribute - Biography

If James Baldwin could still speak to us no doubt he would have a lot to say about today's America and the world, He died on December 1, 1987, at the age of 63, in southern France. (See Black Issues Book Review, May-June 2000.) Had he lived, he would have been 80 this year.

Baldwin's too-short journey started in Harlem on August 2, 1924, when the world-famous district was entering its "Renaissance" and the so-called Negro was getting a new face. Raised on the Bible, after a short-lived experience as a boy-preaches in the storefront churches of Harlem, he converted himself to another creed--his religion of love--and following the calling of "bearing witness to the truth."

Baldwin's legacy is immenses; rooted now in everything we know or still ignore, accept or keep denying about race, sex, gender and power. We are apt to forget he had to be there to open our eyes to simple--albeit overwhelming--truths, to reveal the evidence of things not seen, not said. His is still a powerful voice, "old and black and terrible as that first ancestor," as Amiri Baraka once put it.

In all his essays, in keeping with the tradition of the book of Job and The Jeremiads, he draws from his own experience, his own suffering and that of his brothers and sisters, to teach us love. As such, Baldwin's works stand as treasured testimonies, evidence of as past to be acknowledged and cherished and reassesed because, as he said, "If you know where you were, you came, there is really no limit to where you can go," he exhorts his nephew(s) in The Fire Next Time. "You can only be destroyed by believing that you are really what the white world calls a nigger."

Indeed, Baldwin demonstrates that the American problem is not so much a "black" one as a "white" one. Here, according to him, lies the paradox of America, "We cannot be free until they ate free" since "I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it." It is, thus, all the more indispensable to disclose the psychological sources of the plight of the black people by debunking all the myths, which white America has been living on for centuries. America has to be confronted with, in Baldwin's words, the "corpse in the closet, the dead body floating in the unconscious of the nation"

Besides fiery essays, Baldwin bequeaths to us compelling...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP