The Fire Next Time

Photo by Richard Avedon

Friday would have been the 95th birthday of James Baldwin, brilliant, bighearted writer, prophet, intellectual and human being who spent his life as a black gay man insisting, "I'm not a nigger, I'm a man." Passionate and prescient, he spoke, wrote and embraced his rage at America's enduring racism: "The great battle was...not to see yourself as the world saw you." That battle was lifelong. Born poor in Harlem on August 2, 1924, he was the oldest of nine children and grew up with a harsh stepfather who called him "the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him." Dark, small, fiercely intelligent and ceaselessly bullied, he spent hours alone at the public library: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people."

The boy preacher became an electrifying writer and speaker, moving for years between Europe and America as he dug deep into the hard racial, sexual and class truths of his time, and, it turns out, ours. "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time," he wrote. Also: “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” During the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin returned home, only to witness the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Their lives and deaths, and this country's "bloody catalogue of oppression," formed the basis of an unfinished manuscript that became the documentary, "I Am Not Your Negro," which explores America's sordid racial history from 1940s Birmingham, Alabama to today's Ferguson, Missouri. Bearing witness with both fury and dignity, Baldwin works at his task: "To make the world a more human dwelling place." From his film manuscript to his novels and essays, his writing - eloquent, elegant, blistering, lyrical - will break your heart and knock you off your feet. Today, more than ever, he is missed. From one admirer, "When God plants a seed and nurtures it Himself, you get James Baldwin."

“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you."

"I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain."
 
"It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them," Baldwin said. " I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country."
 
“There are days in this country when you wonder what your role in this country is and your place in it. How precisely (are you) going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here? I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country."
From his famous debate with William Buckley in 1965 on the subject, "The American Dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro." Baldwin was declared the winner by a huge margin.

 Photo by Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

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