Growing up in Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s, James Baldwin had no shortage of reasons to fear the police and to hate the wider white population. In the early ’40s, when he was turned away from a New Jersey diner—the American Diner, no less—he wanted to kill the waitress who told him “We don’t serve Negroes here.” (Instead, he threw a glassful of water, and ran.) In 1948, at twenty-four, he put every cent he had into a one-way ticket to Paris: “I left America,” he explained, “because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here.” To survive, that is, as a man who would not be reduced to the color of his skin, or agree to limits on his aspirations. “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even merely a Negro writer.” But as the Civil Rights movement gathered force, Baldwin came home to report on the devastating results of America’s color problem from up close—from Charlotte, Birmingham, Little Rock—writing about both its victims and its perpetrators, writing for its victims and its perpetrators, blacks and whites. Because both groups needed to understand the moral blindness at the problem’s source. Baldwin wrote to rouse the conscience of the country and to lead us toward his uncannily steady vision (how did he hold on to it?) of the united people we could yet become.
From early on, he saw this country’s bloody racial past as its future great advantage, conferring cultural richness and the experience of a multi-colored world. To reach such a future, it was necessary to acknowledge the human costs of past and present, and to fight injustice with all one’s strength. But, for African Americans, there were two important further lessons. One: Do not believe the denigrating things they say about you; these are merely a strategy, a projection, a psychosis. And: you must let your well-earned hatred go. It was these hard-earned lessons that had earned him a personal freedom far beyond what Paris could provide. “Hatred, which could destroy so much,” he wrote, “never failed to destroy the man who hated and this was an immutable law.” However improbable it seemed—and may still seem today—Baldwin viewed the historical relationship of the races in America as “a wedding,” their long mutual involvement as that of “a family,” inextricably bound. Even when warning of the fire next time, he was optimistic that the “relatively conscious” whites and blacks could reshape the consciousness of others, in order to “end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”
It is taking longer than he ever imagined. At sixty, he was sick of being told that change takes time. “Sixty years of one man’s life is a long time to deliver on a promise, especially considering all the lives preceding and surrounding my own.” There is nothing in today’s troubled racial landscape that, alas, he wouldn’t recognize. (The revolution in gay rights, though, might offer some consoling joy.) He held out little hope for what a black presidency could bring: What really mattered, he said (in 1961!) is “just what kind of country he’ll be President of.” There is little doubt that he’d be part of the new civil rights movement: he was teaching that black lives matter from the time he first put pen to paper, perhaps because he needed first to teach it to himself. New generations continue to find his words a counter to the easier and most destructive possibilities—to give up, to burn things down—and a source of necessary strength.
As a mentor for our times, Baldwin addresses nearly every problem. Here, for example, is his plain response to voting rights restrictions: “It is entirely unacceptable that I should have no voice in the political affairs of my own country, for I am not a ward of America; I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores.” Yet, for all his political impact, Baldwin was not primarily a political writer. A child of the church, he had his eye on larger, everlasting issues. His great subjects were morality, compassion, empathy. In an essay that he wrote just before he died, he offered what may stand as a final credo, holding his arms tight around us all: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white.”