5 Reasons Why Author James Baldwin is Still Important to Read
I was first introduced to James Baldwin in a Creative Writing class. A classmate of mine recommended a short story of his: “Sonny’s Blues”. I decided to give it a read and I wasn’t necessarily blown away. However, I noticed how his story-telling was sharp and nuanced, how his characters were rendered with great detail and emotion. I’ve given “Sonny’s Blues” several rereads since that undergrad class, and each time I’m brought to new and subtle places. “Sonny’s Blues” is about Harlem circa 1950’s, about heroin during that era, about family and death, about what it means to be black and young in America. It was published in 1957 and then republished in 1965 on a collection called “Going to Meet The Man”.
That story was written over thirty years ago.
By why does his work still hold up today? Like most great writers and thinkers, he was so in-tuned with his social and political climate that he gave insight to past, present, and future generations. And, as I am facing our particular climate, I can’t help but think of Baldwin’s words and predictions. Here are five reasons why you should still read author James Baldwin:
1. He teaches balance
Baldwin was a serious and important voice during the civil rights era. He followed his idols and fellow advocates, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, with his own perspective of America’s injustices. He always wrote from a personal and realistic expectation about society, which inevitably leads to a lot of rumination about all sides. Baldwin, despite his clear identification with being an black American, could not help but give perspective to the other side. It was his way of understanding the duality and “balance” of American nature.
In Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son”, he writes:
“The first idea was acceptance, that acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in ones’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength.”
Baldwin acknowledges the truth and fact of injustice: that it is prevalent and constant in human nature. But he’s not willing to cower under it; he’s willing to fight — through writing — to keep injustice in check. A very difficult thing to do, and extremely weighing on whoever is consciously doing it. However, as we’ve been seeing in our current social/political landscape, fighting can mean progress. And, if we both accept the means of our horrible nature and then change those horrible means, we might evolve as a species.
2. He captures the nuance of being an American
I’m going to start with a quote that Mr. Baldwin writes in his essay “Many Thousands Gone”:
“The making of an American begins at the point where he himself rejects all ties , any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted landed. This problem has been faced by all Americans throughout our history — in a way it is our history — and it baffles the immigrant and sets on edge the second generation until today.”
This perfect quote describes — to a tee — how I feel as a Chinese American, as a third generation American, as a son of immigrants. It’s a hard feeling to describe: a liminal space where you feel trapped between two wildly different cultures. Or, rather, you feel excluded from two cultures because you’re not completely either, or. Baldwin, a grandson of slaves, has never felt so caught between this feeling. There’s a subconscious sense of not fitting in because our American history is too shallow, too new, and the wounds of our beginnings are still too fresh and open.
Often times I find it difficult to write about what it means to be an American. Because, like Baldwin’s quote suggests, a lot of what it means to be American is to reject my old culture — to pick a side. But Baldwin asks me to think about the subject with nuance. There are no sides to pick. Being an American should not be an enigma: it’s right in front of me. It just takes courage and awareness to honestly write about my experience.
3. He’ll give you insight on your forefathers
One the biggest themes in my life is the relationship with my father. He’s much older than an average dad — 86 years old to my 29 years (you do the math!) I spent a majority of my childhood with him, since he retired when I was only in preschool, but I never really got to know him.
“ I had not known my father very well. We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in our different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized that I had hardly ever spoken to him. When he had been dead a long time I began to wish I had. It seems to be typical of life in America, where opportunities, real and fancied, are thicker than anywhere else on the globe, that the second generation has no time to talk to the first.”
I’ve tried speaking with my father about his life in hopes of illuminating my own, but he gives me simple answers. I want to believe that he’s boiled his life, a hard and glorious life, to the simple truths. Work hard. Have a family. Make as much money as possible.
Baldwin’s nonfiction and fiction often explores the haunting dynamics between fathers and sons. At the end of Baldwin’s stories I wonder what is a father to his child, how impactful, even through absences, is his influence?
4. He shows you how to be articulate despite being frustrated and confused
“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.”
I joke that James Baldwin is a hater. He comments on the weakness of novels such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Native Son”. He’s constantly harping on Hollywood and their pigeonholed representation of minorities (in the 1960s). He criticizes everything and anything that attempts to generalize this country. He’s not a hater — he’s just mad and frustrated and confused about our culture and history.
He doesn’t blame anything or, really, anyone. He looks at the fine detail of a subject matter, what he sees true and not true, and writes it out. But Baldwin is not perfect. You can read the anger and frustration on the page. You can hear his pounding voice, his scolding points, his blood-filled silences. It’s beautiful to read a man who expresses all those emotions but willingly refuses to let those emotions, valid as they are, turn into hatred and propaganda.
5. He’ll show you how to write a damn good essay
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
Good writing is difficult. Great writing is nearly impossible. I can’t think of anything close to being great than Baldwin’s Autobiographical Notes in his larger essay collection “Notes of a Native Son”.
He has an immense ability to scale personal experiences into large political themes within a few pages of the same essay. He’s not afraid to ruminate, he’s not afraid to contradict himself. He explores all aspects of a subject, coming away with complex answers and, more importantly, asking important questions.
The hardest thing about writing an essay is the allowing yourself to diverge away from your main point and into something else than may be more interesting. When you read a Baldwin essay, it seems like he’s allowing the subject to grow. Whether it’s about book criticisms or childhood experiences, he diverges into the grander scope of his community and often surprises us with the true lesson that he’s trying to teach.
Baldwin, James. Notes of A Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.