I’d like to take a break from our regularly scheduled program. A break from the brouhaha of 45 and undoing of democracy as we know it, as well as the fearful reality that I have to become an actual adult in six weeks. I’d like to discuss one of the greatest writers of the last century. I’d like to discuss Baldwin.
It cannot be overstated the impact of James Arthur Baldwin’s work and life on my life, my writing and the lens through which I view the world. Many of my early writings on race, class and American society were shallow attempts at replicating his work. I tried to emulate his cadence and vocabulary. I tried to write with the same cool matter-of-factness he did so eloquently. Even now, while I no longer have the same undying, fiery desire to be Baldwin in 2018, he’s still the bar at which I set my work.
I read Baldwin’s fiction to varying degrees throughout my childhood. Due to my mom’s love for Black 20th century writers, I had read bits and pieces of my mom’s worn, tattered copy of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” at different parts of my life. As I got older, my interest in fiction waned, and I never finished it. In spite of this, I was acutely aware of the importance of his work and its impact on society.
While I would eventually read more of Baldwin, I wasn’t able to truly meet him or find myself in his work until my first year of college. After reading “The Fire Next Time” in a post-1865 history course, my life was changed. Forever.
Never had I seen someone write so clearly, so prophetically (while staying grounded) about the state of the world. Never before had I seen a half-century-old commentary on American society feel so ... ALIVE. It felt as if Baldwin’s words had been written in 2014, not 51 years prior.