James Baldwin unfortunately, isn’t a household name. If you have been disappointed by the American education system and never heard of James Baldwin until say, today, I am here to brief you on the legacy of the famed novelist, playwright, poet and activist.
Baldwin was born in Harlem, NY in 1924 to a single mother who never actually disclosed the name of his biological father. Regardless, he developed a pretty intense relationship with his step father who was formally integrated into the family when he was about three years old. He became one of eight children, and his childhood was chaotic to say the least.
Baldwin had interest in reading that developed into a passion and talent for writing. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, a racially integrated school, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon, who famously photographed Civil Rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After Baldwin graduated high school in 1942, the reality of adulthood for a black man in America set in. He faced discrimination as all African Americans did at the time, and struggled to make ends meet.
It felt like life really began to change for Baldwin around 1943. His step-father passed, and he moved shortly after to Greenwich Village to focus on his craft. He started writing his first novel, working odd jobs to support the project. Then, he befriended writer Richard Wright, which allowed him to participate in a fellowship that helped to publish some of his very first writings. Three years later, he relocated across the pond to Paris, France. That’s where the magic happened. He met a few other gifted black Americans who also moved to Paris.
Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly…I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.
I often hear from American expats that their perspective on the United States changes following their international move. It seems obvious and inevitable. This is predominantly because expats are able to experience how American news and headlines are received abroad and naturally, through the course of adjusting to a new culture and routine, expats compare and contrast how one culture differs from the other. Eventually, you may recognize what other countries do better than you. This is an important lesson for many people to learn, especially Americans.
I can only speak for Americans as I am one, but we are far too boisterous and proud for our own good. I find that many Americans consider it unpatriotic to criticize their homeland. Not every country is perfect and yes, the grass is always greener on the other side however, in order to progress as a nation, you have to acknowledge the flaws. Baldwin clearly recognized that America distracted him from his ability to truly reflect on what America was projecting at the time. It’s difficult to focus on your own growth and purpose, when society is too fixated on the minute frame.
Take a few minutes and watch this speech.
What Baldwin preaches are concepts you are relatively familiar with, I hope. Consider the time for which these words were spoken. He helped forge greater dialogue about race relations in the United States. He mentioned how some black Americans are hopeful for a more equal society. The notion that an African American could be President of the United States within 40 years, for example, was feasible. For others, they feel betrayed by politicians for far too long. It was a sentiment many resonated with even when former President Obama was running for office. Some Americans could not imagine a black man could be elected or rather, they couldn’t bear another disappointment.
A statement he makes that stands out for me is this: “I am not a ward of America. I’m not an object of missionary charity. I am one of the people who built this country. Until this moment, I can’t see any hope for the American Dream because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it, and if that happens, it will be a very grave moment for the West.”
Unification of the American people is crucial for the success of the nation. The nation was established by ancestors of blacks and whites. Segregation didn’t work, and will never work. We do have to acknowledge our bloodied history but to a degree, what is done is done. We have to accept the wrongdoings of our past, and strive to correct those behaviors. We need to support our neighbors to succeed. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A nation divided cannot stand”.
As an author, Baldwin seemed fearless. Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1953. He narrowed in on his relationship with his father and religion. Giovanni’s Room was published in 1955, and it became the first of his published works that discussed homosexuality which was immensely taboo at the time.
Such published works led to a conversation about his sexuality. Although Baldwin had openly admitted attraction to both men and women, he stressed the importance of a more inclusive view of gender fluidity. His bravery cannot go unnoticed.
We have all heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I, however, was never educated about James Baldwin. His work was researched on my own accord. This speaks volumes on how the American education system values black history, and I graduated from Massachusetts. We are known to have one of the strongest, most established education programs in the country. In honor of Black History Month, re-educate yourself on the minority leaders who helped shape this country in ways for which we are forever indebted. Don’t make the mistake of not knowing about the triumphant, courageous powerhouses of our history.