Born 90 years ago, on Aug. 2, 1924, James Baldwin grew up triply removed from society—thrice marginalized, as the current term has it. First, he was black in a nation that even today has no idea how to deal with its racist past and present. Second, he was a lover of books, reading and writing in a culture mistrustful of the intellect. Third, he was gay. All these facts gave him no end of torment, but he dealt with them bravely all the same, writing, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
The Harlem of Baldwin’s birth was the intellectual and artistic hub of what would rightly be called a renaissance. By the time he came of age, that flourishing had faded. The oldest of nine children in a churchly family, he broke with faith and kin early, moving to Greenwich Village a step ahead of the Beats. There, he worked hard on the essays and books for which he would become known in the 1950s. When Go Tell It on the Mountain, his debut novel, appeared, he was 29, bursting with energy and promise. In the next 10 years, he followed up with books of social criticism—Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time—that gave white readers a firsthand look at the injustices black people endured daily.
Baldwin followed another less-known avenue, taking himself to France and a society that was famously friendly to black intellectuals and artists. While in Europe, he wrote the novel that made his sexual orientation plain, Giovanni’s Room (1956), a pioneering book that ironically began his alienation from the black liberation movement that was rising at home. Baldwin was a vigorous participant in the civil rights movement, but Eldridge Cleaver declared that by virtue of his identification as a gay man, he had declared a “total hatred of blacks.” Just so, that identification led organizers, conservative in such matters, to remove Baldwin from the roster of speakers at the March on Washington.
Baldwin kept on writing and agitating for civil rights both for African-Americans and for the gay community. His efforts continued to the end of his life, and even though his last major book, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), was tinged with sorrow, anger and bitterness, he remained convinced that the struggle would end in victory.
There’s thus still more irony in the fact that Baldwin, a staple of the modern writing curriculum when I was in high school in the 1970s, is now fast losing his place there, absent from the Common Core. The reason? Because in a supposedly post-racial society, any discussion of race is a source of discomfort.
It’s supposed to be. James Baldwin made sure that it was. His absence is intolerable, for his books, instruments of liberation, remain immediate in connecting us with pain, heartbreak and all the people who have ever been alive.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.