James Baldwin was a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. His brilliant and provocative essays made him the literary voice of the Civil Rights Era, and they continue to speak with powerful urgency to us today, whether in the swirling debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or in the words of Raoul Peck's documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." Edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, the Library of America's Collected Essays is the most comprehensive gathering of Baldwin's nonfiction ever published. With burning passion and jabbing, epigrammatic wit, Baldwin fearlessly articulated issues of race and democracy and American identity in such famous essays as "The Harlem Ghetto," "Everybody's Protest Novel," "Many Thousands Gone," and "Stranger in the Village." Here are the complete texts of his early landmark collections, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), which established him as an essential intellectual voice of his time, fusing in unique fashion the personal, the literary, and the political. "One writes," he stated, "out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give." With singular eloquence and unblinking sharpness of observation he lived up to his credo: "I want to be an honest man and a good writer." The classic The Fire Next Time (1963), perhaps the most influential of his writings, is his most penetrating analysis of America's racial divide and an impassioned call to "end the racial nightmare...and change the history of the world." The later volumes No Name in the Street (1972) and The Devil Finds Work (1976) chart his continuing response to the social and political turbulence of his era and include his remarkable works of film criticism. A further 36 essays--nine of them previously uncollected--include some of Baldwin's earliest published writings, as well as revealing later insights into the language of Shakespeare, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of Earl Hines. LIBRARY OF AMERICA is an independent nonprofit cultural organization founded in 1979 to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping permanently in print, America's best and most significant writing. The Library of America series includes more than 300 volumes to date, authoritative editions that average 1,000 pages in length, feature cloth covers, sewn bindings, and ribbon markers, and are printed on premium acid-free paper that will last for centuries.
Baldwin’s literary fame had been built on a complex and elusive sense of racial reconciliation, drawing together disparate but nonetheless proximate corners of the U.S. reading public. Those connections had been tough enough to forge in books and magazines. Reconcilation in history would be much harder than that. But, as he wrote in The Fire Next Time, “human history in general, and Negro history in particular,” testified “to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Two long essays, one in the form of a letter to Baldwin's nephew, comprise this work, which contains some of the most articulate, sane and inspiring writing to hit me since I first read Walden and thought "this man sees things as I do, and can put it into words!" And what words they are. "This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which...it intended that you should perish...You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason...You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity...Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear...There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you....You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men...But these men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again."
Full of wise observations, clearly made from the perspective of a young African American male in the early 1960's, and yet considerably more hopeful for the future than someone of his background had any reason to feel at that trying time in our history. His view of how humans should treat each other is singularly lacking in contempt, bitterness or desire for retribution, but it is realistic and not deceptively rose-tinted, either. "If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience...hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry...The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school...It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate...If we--and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks,...do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
This is eloquence and insight of the richest sort. I wish Baldwin were still around to comment on the last few decades.
Review written September 2014
He is angry in his writing (and that may enrich his expressions of love), and he justifies that anger. He knows the ins and outs of the subjects he tackles as for example (not his words) hurry up and wait. But what impressed me over and over and over even as I admired his presence in the events he joined (a novelist is a person on whom nothing is lost) was his expressiveness in American English. The man can write. It is fluid; nothing calls out, "Look at this." He talks so lucidly that you can count the grains of sand on the bottom.
I hope, but maybe know myself better, to keep this book at hand. When something comes up that he has commented on I would like to turn back to it and glance at his opinion and, impossible to avoid, how he expressed it.