Henry Louis Gates on the Legacy of James Baldwin

29 May
James Baldwin

James Baldwin once appeared on the cover of Time after writing a best-selling book of essays. In the essay, “The Fire Last Time,” Henry Louis Gates discusses the complex legacy of Baldwin’s work.

In Texas, many high school required-reading lists include To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that often provides the students with their sole glimpse of the Civil Rights era and issues of racism. Sometimes the students also read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which is a start, but clearly more African-American voices are needed in high school curricula. One of those voices ought to be James Baldwin.

Baldwin was, for a time, one of the most famous writers in America. Time put him on the cover in 1963, following the publication of his book of two essays, The Fire Next Time. (This was three years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. To say that the books portray the world in different ways is putting it lightly.) Baldwin was also the author of many novels, including Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, and collections of essays, including Notes of a Native Son, which contains a complex discussion of Richard Wright’s novel. Baldwin was gay, and because of the way this fact was received, he eventually moved to France, where he spent most of the rest of his life.

Ironically, despite his immense literary output and former prestige, most high school and college students today rarely encounter Baldwin’s work, the lone exception being the story “Sonny’s Blues.” I’ve taught college composition and literature for almost ten years and used many different anthologies, and the only other work of Baldwin’s that I’ve ever encountered in a course text is his essay about living in Switzerland, “Stranger in a Village.” 

There are likely numerous reasons for the absence of Baldwin’s work in many classrooms and texts: American’s enduring racism, Baldwin’s sexual identity, his criticism of Christianity, the fact that he lived most of his life in Europe, his at-times contrarian attitudes toward some of the major African-American of the time. Rather than attempting to discuss these, I’ll leave that work to someone much more knowledgeable and smarter than me. A few years ago, Henry Louis Gates wrote an essay, “The Fire Last Time,” for The New Republic. In it, Gates talks about meeting Baldwin and wrestling with his work. The essay is one of those shining examples of a highly erudite and entertaining intellectual discussing and assessing a writer’s work in the context of changing movements and aesthetics. In other words, it’s very good. You can read it here at The New Republic.

May 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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