Celebrating Black History Month – James Baldwin
“I often wonder what I’d do if there weren’t any books in the world.”
— James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
So do we, Mr. Baldwin, so do we. Or, more specifically, we wonder what we would do if there weren’t any of your books in the world.
Last year, during Black History Month, we payed our respect to a handful of influential Americans. Bill Cosby, Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, and George Washington Carver were all honored here on the Mod-Blog.
Obviously, there are wayyyyyy more than a handful of influential African-Americans that are deserving of our respect/honoring/gratitude/wonderment, but, luckily for us, time is both linear and consistent. And because you, the wonderful Modify customers, have been so fantastic this past year, we just might have the longevity required to catch up to the long list of great men and women deserving of recognition.
First up in this here 2014 is a writer so talented, so sure of his own hand, that he often made other writers question their own.
James Baldwin, author, most notably, of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and the essay “Down at the Cross,” was a writer so rare that he was at once ahead of his time, of an earlier era and the perfect luminary for the present.
Born in 1924, Baldwin was raised in New York City, and lived in a brutal, unfair Harlem, attending high school in the Bronx before going on to study at The New School.
But Baldwin’s studies were only half of his childhood, and that’s because as a city-kid, Baldwin got an early shot at independence. He and a friend began hanging out in the Bohemian Zion, Greenwich Village, and before long, Baldwin was both a published teenager and a friend/roommate of a young, pre-Streetcar Named Desire Marlon Brando.
After living in the Village for a while, Baldwin did what seemingly all great pre-Civil Rights writers did: He moved to Paris. His reasons for doing so, however, were far different than those of Fitzgerald, Hemingway or Pound.
Unlike other writers who simply became disenchanted by the well-publicized injustices in America, Baldwin was directly affected by them. In addition to being black during racist America, Baldwin was also gay, and the social landscape of America in 1948 made home an unwelcome idea for him.
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” he wrote in Giovanni’s Room.
Upon arriving in Paris, Baldwin made waves. And then more waves. And then figurative tsunamis. He got his start writing essays for a magazine called Zero. Within a few years, he had published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, in addition to being fantastically well-written, was arguably the most controversial book of the 1950’s. But controversy never slowed James Baldwin down.
He made his way back to the US by 1957, to be stateside during the Civil Rights Movement, and by the Spring of 1963, Baldwin’s face was so synonymous with the movement he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
Time wrote about him then, “In the US today there is not another writer — white or black — who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”
Sounds like a righteous dude to us.
Beyond his ballerific writing ability, his unmatched devotion to issues pertaining to the struggles endured by both the African American and LGBTQ communities, his loyal activism — which, to his credit, he never took much stock in the title of “activist*” — Baldwin was a stylish, stylish guy.
Sure, Bill Cosby had the sweater, which was consistent, but Baldwin oozed cool. Whether he was rocking the short-sleeve button-down, making Kendrick Lamar look like a copycat, or straight owning the cardigan steez, James Baldwin might be one of the most underrated dressers of the 20th Century.
Hemingway gets all the credit for dressing like he fell off a safari, and that was definitely cool when people could still legally hunt tigers, but Baldwin’s style is timeless. Forget (the Oscar Award-winning) Three-6 Mafia, he’s been popping his collar ever since celluloid film could remember.
So if you haven’t given James Baldwin a read, or a even a study, it would be in your best interest to do so. If you have, then you’ll have no problem raising an Almond Milk Latte’d wrist to sartorially toast a man, a sometimes-myth and an always-legend.
Three Quotes for the road:
“The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”
“One writes out of one thing only — one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
* He once said that he subscribed to the belief of Malcolm X, who thought that if someone is a citizen, then they shouldn’t have to fight for civil rights. Either way, both Baldwin and Malcolm X were pretty “active” for non-activists. It’s a nice show of humility, however, sort of like if Bill Belichick rejected the title of “coach” and instead opted for “Employee of the Fans.”