The Year of Baldwin — Joining the Celebration

When the U.S. writer James Baldwin died at age 63 in 1987, he left behind a treasure trove of writings and a legacy that seemed certain to grow and deepen with the passing of time.

If Baldwin had been living among us today, he would have been heartened, I’m sure, to see his 90th birthday feted just a few days ago on August 2, and his legacy as one of the greatest writers of our time still recognized and warmly embraced.

Toward that end, a series of events commemorating “The Year of James Baldwin” has now kicked off in the United States, giving us the chance over the coming 12 months to remember and reflect on Baldwin’s legacy and, if we so choose, to rededicate ourselves to carrying on his passion for seeking/telling the truth and for getting socially involved.

The writings of James Baldwin have had an enormous influence on my own work, my writing and indeed my life, just as they have had with many others around the world. I tend to look at writers in general not as rivals or competitors, but rather as members of one big, extended family. In that sense, Baldwin occupies the honored place at the head of the table as one of my fathers in the world of writing.

A quick look at the overcrowded shelves of books here in my home in Japan, and I find Baldwin still well-represented there: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), One Day, When I was Lost (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), Jimmy’s Blues (1983), The Evidence of Things Unseen (1985) and The Price of the Ticket (1985). In order to make space for newcomers, some of the books in my personal library have been removed and given away over the years, but Baldwin remains a permanent fixture among my collected books and always will be. His work is that important to me.

How so? Well, for one thing, especially in his nonfiction works, Baldwin cut through the crap and told it like it was. He never let America off the hook for its social ills — racism most predominantly among them — and he often disrobed American society of the sanctimonious self-image with which it seemed to wrap itself. I always respected Baldwin’s courage as a writer in confronting issues rather than retreating from them.

Baldwin let me know as a writer that I was not alone out there. The so-called wretched of the earth were his brethren, and they became mine too.

It is sometimes said that Baldwin’s works were more heat than light — that he aroused emotions in his readers rather than enlightened them. And I think there’s truth in that. But what’s wrong with it? Every writer has a style, and Baldwin remained true to his way of writing without any phony pretensions of intellectual stuffiness and academic snobbery.

And if you focused only on the anger found in Baldwin’s writings, then you inevitably missed out on the love in them. For Baldwin often wrote of love and the desperate need for it: love for our own selves, love for the other, love as a liberating force, love as a sheer matter of survival. It’s all there in the many pages he wrote. He was a Lover with a capital “L”, the kind that really counts.

That’s why it’s so exciting and moving to see folks in the U.S. and elsewhere remembering Baldwin in his 90th year with all these special events and projects lined up over the coming months. Far from forgetting his enormous presence in the literary world, people are keeping his fire burning and carrying his torch onward.

And since it’s been a long while since I’ve dropped in on a really good party, especially one with some higher purpose to it, I’ve decided to join in these celebrations of The Year of Baldwin, even if from a distance, and honor Baldwin’s legacy in my own way over the coming year.

Acts of Celebration

My first act of celebration starts right here: I’ve just bought an updated, recently published version of Baldwin’s 1955 classic book Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of nonfiction essays, and have begun rereading it and walking that road again. The journey has just started, and already it’s a fascinating trip. This passage from the “Autobiographical Notes” section of Notes of a Native Son jumps right out:

I do not like people who like me because I am a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

Baldwin was brutally honest, with himself and with his readers, which is always the mark of a good writer. But he was much more than a good writer or even a great one — he was a universal writer, the kind that could connect with people like or unlike himself by the pure power of and feeling behind his words. Baldwin never believed his own bullsh*t, as the saying goes, and never expected you, the reader, to either. Honesty was his policy, and it worked. And for me, this about says it all: To be an honest man and a good writer — that is what I too strive for.

So, will you join me in celebrating The Year of Baldwin during this year ahead? Let us together delve back into some of James Baldwin’s past familiar works that have inspired us along the way, or even get into some of his works we’ve never read before.

On that latter score, some of Baldwin’s fiction writings that I had never gotten around to reading over the years — Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head come to mind — are books considered today as international classics in the genre of gay literature. And since it would be impossible to know and appreciate the legacy of Baldwin without having read them, The Year of Baldwin provides an ideal opportunity to catch up on such long-respected works of his that I had long overlooked.

‘The Time That’s Left’

There is no shortage of works of Baldwin to be found online on the Web, so we can enjoy searching for and reading them. While you’re at it, check out this warm, recent piece by a nephew of Baldwin on his uncle’s love affair with life.

And if you can set aside some extra time to look around this website and watch a good documentary film about Baldwin and his life, all the better. PBS, the public television broadcaster in the U.S., offers a free showing of the complete 1989 film James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. A Japanese version of this same film, titled 『ハーレム135丁目 ~ ジェームズ・ボールドウィン抄』(literally: “Harlem, 135th Street: Excerpts of James Baldwin”) was released in the mid-1990s in Japan, and I’ve still got that old VHS version in my video collection as well. Looking forward to going back and watching this superb film again sometime soon.

There was also an outstanding CD, titled A Lover’s Question (which I am listening to as I write these words), released back in 1990 and now apparently out of print, featuring Baldwin in the last years of his life. In it, Baldwin recites his some of his poems over soulful jazz music sounds; he even sings an a capella version of the beloved gospel song “Precious Lord Take My Hand”. You can listen to those CD tracks here at YouTube, as well as some audio and printed excerpts from that CD and an extended written interview with Baldwin at this website.

The liner notes of that CD contain some especially inspiring words from Baldwin himself that I will leave you with here:

I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world, to teach children or to convey to the people who have children, that everything is holy. I hope to suggest the possibility of a new vocabulary, of a new morality, by way of looking at the world.

Words, indeed, to live and die by. And with those words, it’s time for me to head off in joining a bunch of other people around the world in joyously honoring The Year of James Baldwin. From here the celebration begins!

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