4 weeks ago

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Is As Relevant Today As it Was in 1950s America

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With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more prominence and readers looking to inform and educate themselves through literature, Professor Stephen Matterson, Professor of American Literature, Trinity College explains why James Baldwin’s body of work is still essential reading over 70 years after publication …

Sadly, the most significant single voice remains that of James Baldwin – and I say ‘sadly’ because Baldwin’s writing from the 1950s and 1960s is still applicable to today when we might have hoped for real progress, change – and Baldwin himself would have probably liked to think he no longer had any message for the next generation, that change would have made his words part of history not part of the present of 2020. His 1953 essay ‘Stranger in the Village’ has at its core the idea that modernity is about the actuality of interracial interaction. Reflecting on his experience as the only black man in a small Swiss village he emphasises that as a black man in the US he can never be an exotic curious figure, a ‘stranger’ the way that he is in the European village:

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive.

Read his most powerful work, The Fire Next Time from 1962, his letter to his nephew. If you want to reflect on the reasons why the killing of George Floyd has been so profoundly catalytic read the poet Claudia Rankine, and especially her astonishing 2014 collection Citizen: An American Lyric. In her multimedia sections she combines poetry, prose, video installations and photographs and reflects on everyday meetings that exist in a racialised context, on racism and sport, on the history that determines and drives our simplest interactions. Look especially at the section where Rankine lists some of the names of American black people killed by the police – and poignantly leaves spaces to add more names from future incidents – ending the section with a haiku:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

Which brings us right back to Baldwin, writing in a 1972 essay, ‘No Name in the Street’:

Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected – those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! – and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person – ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

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