American Voices: James Baldwin

The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

James Baldwin

James Baldwin was brilliant and brave. He wrote honestly about homosexuality in several novels, including Giovanni’s Room (1956). In the 1960s, he returned to the U.S. from Europe (where he had moved to escape American racism) to take part in the Civil Rights Movement. His searing essays on race in The Fire Next Time (1963) are as relevant today as when they were written.

When Baldwin died, author Toni Morrison wrote a heartrending eulogy in The New York Times, thanking him for “three gifts”: his language, which had “lean, targeted power” and “upright elegance”; his courage “to appropriate an alien, hostile, all-white geography”; and his tenderness, a “vulnerability, that asked everything, expected everything.”

“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.”

—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963)
Photo of James Baldwin. Courtesy of Art Shay Archives
Photo courtesy of the Art Shay Archives

“Baldwin was never afraid to say it…Black, gay, bejeweled, eyes like orbs searching, dancing, calling a spade a spade, in magazines and on the black-and-white TV of my youth. Baldwin, deep in thought and pulling drags from his companion cigarettes, looking his and our danger in the face and never backing down…Baldwin was dangerous to everybody who had anything to hide.” —Nikki Finney, introduction to Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems (2014)

On February 18, 1965, Baldwin participated in one of the most iconic debates in recent history. He faced off against William F. Buckley, Jr., a fierce critic of the Civil Rights Movement and considered by many the father of modern conservatism. In front of a packed crowd at the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England, the two leading voices of their respective movements debated the topic that “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” In February 2020, we hosted Nicholas Buccola for a program to discuss his book The Fire Is Upon Us, which tells the full story of the event, the radically different paths that led Baldwin and Buckley to it, the controversies that followed, and how the debate and the decades-long clash between the men continues to illuminate America’s racial divide today. You can watch a recording of this program on our YouTube channel, or listen to a condensed version of it on the AWM Author Talks podcast.

Selected Works by James Baldwin

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