James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) is arguably one of the greatest writers and public intellectuals the US has ever produced. Even when speaking off the cuff without preparation, his answers are more enlightened and valuable than the prepared speches of the polished mouthpieces in Washington. If US leadership in the last thirty years had half the intellect of that man, most of the US’s problems wouldn’t exist.
A novelist, a playwright, a songwriter, essayist, his versatility and intellect knew no bounds. And as a human rights advocate – civil rights, LGBTQ rights, socialism – his words spoke volumes and have become ever more relevant as the US marches backwards.
Thirty years after Baldwin’s death, though, America has found itself in a Baldwin renaissance. This resurfacing of Baldwin is ubiquitous, from journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning book Between the World and Me (2015); to director Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated film I Am Not Your Negro (2016); to the fact that, over the past year, Baldwin’s book sales have improved by an impressive 110 percent, according to some estimates. That Baldwin is now re-emerging says lots about Baldwin—but it says even more about us.
There aren’t many people I have said I wish I could go back in time and meet, but James Baldwin is one of them. Unlike many whose personal lives turned out to be flawed or problematic, Baldwin’s name remains untarnished.