August 2nd marks the birthday of novelist James Baldwin. He remains one of the most important African-American writers of all time, up in the ranks of Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Stephen Wright. His essays and memoirs masterfully combine autobiography and the issues of race that plagued his America. He is remembered for his impeccable prose style, his fearlessness of content, and his stature as a cultural figure,just as well as a literary one. In the words of author Michael Ondaatje, If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one.
As far as socially conscious writers go, Baldwin is a titan. He befriended many of the significant figures of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and chronicled the effect of their lives and deaths on him in his memoir, No Name in the Street. Not only was he an ardent proponent of racial equality. His novel Giovannis Room broke literary ground in its unapologetic depiction of homosexuality, a subject not commonly mentioned by its 1956 publication date. This very novel earned him such praise by literary critic Darryl Pinckney: in the kingdom of first person, he has few peers, citing this passage especially:
"Until I die there will be those moments, moments seeming to rise up out of the ground like Macbeths witches, when his face will come before me, that face in all its changes, when the exact timbre of his voice and tricks of his speech will nearly burst my ears, when his smell will overpower my nostrils. Sometimes, in the days which are comingGod grant me the grace to live themin the glare of the grey morning, sour-mouthed, eyelids raw and red, hair tangled and damp from my stormy sleep, facing, over coffee and cigarette smoke, last nights impenetrable, meaningless boy who will shortly rise and vanish like the smoke, I will see Giovanni again, as he was that night, so vivid, so winning, all of the light of that gloomy tunnel trapped around his head."
His most famous novel is his first; a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman entitled Go Tell it on the Mountain. It draws much of its inspiration from Baldwins teenage years he spent as a charismatic preacher at his Harlem church. One of the most significant religious parallels of the book is of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. He contended that American blacks had a similar need for proper societal treatment and belonging. Through the eyes of a young, fourteen year old narrator, we get a striking, youthful perspective of the effect of social constructs and discrimination on the mind of a child.
In his many creative autobiographical accounts, one is consistently reminded of his proximity and receptiveness to the historical changes around him. His essay Notes of a Native Son involves a reflection on the death of his disliked father on the eve of a great Harlem race riot. No Name in the Street offers accounts of activists like himself who were unfairly targeted and spied on by the government, in addition to his indelible experience on the National Mall during Dr. Kings famous I Have a Dream speech. One cannot avoid that James Baldwin was not only a man of letters, but one of his culture and time, as well.