Is James Baldwin America’s Greatest Essayist?


James Baldwin poses at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979

“I finished The Fire Next Time on a plane to Greenville, South Carolina. I am here to give a talk tonight about the legacy of the Civil War. I probably should not have read Baldwin before coming into the backyard of John Calhoun and Pitchfork Ben Tillman. I’m all on fire and resolved to bring some of that fire forth tonight.  I have come to places like this before. I have never shrunk from speaking my piece, but I dislike making people directly uncomfortable and have a tendency in person to complicate things that I know are not complicated at all. I am resolving to move away from that. Manners have their place. I should not conflate them with cowardice. I want to thank everyone who pointed me toward how much Baldwin really does embrace love. I am remembering what I, myself, loved about him as a young man. I came to college a total Malcolmite. I kind of still am. But Baldwin was among a set of influences that talked me out of my younger self. He is tough to pin down, because he understands the anger in black people, he feels it himself, and fears it. There is something of the atheist about him, though he does not directly say it. His encounters with racism leave him on the edge of violence and hatred, but The Fire Next Time is all about why one should walk back, all about why you should never judge yourself by the standards of the owner of the boot presently on your neck. That is how Baldwin got me. He revealed to me that black nationalism is, itself, a kind of philosophical integration. If you listen to any of Malcolm’s speeches they sound like they are straight out of the Enlightenment, and Malcolm himself uses the American revolution and the nationalism of whites around the globe as a model. Baldwin’s reply is not to interrogate black nationalism in isolation, but to interrogate nationalism—and the nation—itself. He hates the hypocrisy and self-congratulation of white liberals and though he loves hard, though he deeply understands that race is a creation, he is never blinded by love. …”
The Atlantic

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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