Were he still alive, James Baldwin would have been 90 years old this year. His thoughts, words and the way he used them to analyze the racial climate of the time touched readers and fellow authors alike.
After winning a Rosenwald grant in 1948, Baldwin could start work on his first novel: Go Tell It On The Mountain. In this novel, he explored religion and its effect on the nature of relationships and interactions within a community. For African Americans specifically, Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain looks at the repressions, moral hypocrisy and inspiration that comes from being entrenched in the church community.
Portrait of James Baldwin, 1955
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten Collection
The experiences of racial tension in Harlem, life in France with the expatriates, and travels around the country during the Civil Rights era shape the the enduring image and legacy of Baldwin. In the 1940s he fled the abuse, frustration and despair that came with being a young black man in America.
For him, “It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend on the George Washington Bridge,” he told the Paris Review.
The characters in Baldwin’s work, reflect this feeling. They’re as frustrated and downtrodden as Baldwin, hiding their fear and clutching on to their anger. But he reaches beyond this to the everyday interactions, manifestations of love and compassion that humanized the characters. Black youth for generations to come have identified with his stories, such as “Sonny’s Blues”.
Walter Dean Myers, who made a career writing children’s stories, was one of the many inspired by Baldwin to write stories where, as Myers explained, “black children [are] going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be.”
Myers died earlier this month, but much like his mentor Baldwin, his work remains an integral part of the African American literary canon.
A friend of Myers is quoted in his New York Times obituary saying that Myers “wrote about disenfranchised black kids, particularly boys, and he wrote about them with extraordinary honesty and also with compassion.” Undoubtedly some of this honesty and compassion was passed down from Baldwin, who also created a literary space where young black males could find themselves and their sense of belonging.
By Anakwa Dwamena