The Forgotten Baldwin

Joseph Vogel in Boston Review:

Few have inspired the Movement for Black Lives as much as James Baldwin. His books that plumb the psychological depths of U.S. racism, notably Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963), speak to the present in ways that seem not only relevant but prophetic. However, Baldwin’s renewed status as a household name, cemented by the critical success of Raoul Peck’s 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro, makes it easy to forget that for several decades Baldwin fell from public favor.

Although Baldwin continued to work through the late 1980s, his canonical works were all published during the 1950s and ’60s, and he is seldom associated with the post–civil rights era. Some ascribe this abrupt decline in his reputation to a falling out with the white literary establishment, who believed Baldwin sacrificed his promise for political and moral commitments to Black Power. Others felt it had to do with Baldwin’s insecure role in black America. According to Hilton Als, when Baldwin became the official voice of black America, he compromised his voice as a writer. Others argued just the opposite: Baldwin lost his place precisely because he refused to identify with the essentialist logic of identity politics and any of its associated movements. Still others believed his diminishment resulted from becoming bitter. Baldwin, they said, refused to acknowledge the progress the United States had made since the 1950s. As the New York Times’ Michael Anderson wrote in a 1998 review of Baldwin’s collected essays: “Little wonder he lost his audience: America did what Baldwin could not—it moved forward.” In a world of Black Lives Matter activism and the Trump administration, this triumphalist narrative of the United States’ racial progress looks especially naïve. And it is not surprising then that Baldwin’s words resonate for us yet again.

More here.