Back in the day, being on the cover of Time magazine was huge. Then, everyone from salesclerks to Wall Street traders read the newsweekly, and if your face, well known or not, peered out from it on newsstands or in mailboxes, everyone would know your name.
This was especially true when James Baldwin, the iconic novelist, essayist, playwright and poet, who wrote stirringly and eloquently on the civil rights movement, race and sexuality, made the cover of Time on May 13, 1963. Time made Baldwin a celebrity after the publication earlier that year of “The Fire Next Time,” his searing essays on race and civil rights. One of my most vivid youthful memories is that of my Dad pointing to Baldwin’s visage on Time and saying, “That man is our conscience! You’d have to be made of stone not to listen to him.”
I’m remembering this because Baldwin, who died in the South of France at age 63 in 1987, was born in Harlem 90 years ago this year. Yet, the legacy of Baldwin, black and openly gay years before Stonewall, and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, is fading in many classrooms, the New York Times reported recently. Fortunately, steps are being taken to commemorate and preserve Baldwin’s legacy.
From April 23-27, the New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time” began a year-long celebration of Baldwin in venues from Harlem Stage to the Columbia University School of the Arts. In 2013, “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” two novels by Baldwin were reissued by Vintage. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” by James Baldwin is just out from Beacon Press.
“James Baldwin served as the conscience of America during the civil rights movement,” Matthew Rothschild, senior editor of The Progressive, which published Baldwin’s famous “Letter to My Nephew in 1962,” emailed the Blade. “He wrote with tremendous power.”
Today, when same-sex couples can marry in 17 states and in D.C., out writers from poets to playwrights are a dime a dozen, and the United States has a black president, it’s hard to imagine how prescient and bold Baldwin was.
“When you were starting out as a writer, you were a black, impoverished, homosexual,” an interviewer said to Baldwin. “You must have said to yourself: ‘gee, how disadvantaged could I get?’”
“Oh, no, I thought I hit the jackpot!” Baldwin replied. “It was so outrageous you could not go any further. You had to figure out a way to use it.”
Baldwin “used it” spectacularly: to speak truth to power, spur on writers, to electrify his time and generations to come with his tender, precise, pointed, words, presence and spirit. “Black, gay, beautiful, bejeweled, eyes like orbs, searching, dancing, calling a spade a spade … Baldwin was dangerous to anybody who had anything to hide,” Nikki Finney writes in the introduction to “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.”
He was “a man who had no … no concept of his place,” Finney continues, “who nurtured conversation with Black Panthers and the white literati on the same afternoon.”
Poets can be prophets, E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and director of Howard University’s African-American Resource Center, said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “Baldwin was a prophetic voice. He was in the middle between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – between the church and the blues,” Miller said. “He’s wrestling with how to talk about love and sex.”
The blues gives you a feeling of strength as well as of suffering, Miller said.
“The blues gives you a sense of resilience that enables you to confront what they throw at you,” Miller said. “Baldwin wouldn’t have anyone restricting who he wants to love.”
Why does Baldwin’s legacy matter? Because we still perpetuate and encounter homophobia and racism; and great writing still nourishes our hearts and minds. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin! Long live your prophetic voice!
Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular contributor to the Blade.