Ninety years ago this past weekend, on August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was born in Harlem to a single mother, the eldest of nine children, plagued by poverty, and by a deeply divided country where both his race and his sexuality were seen to be liabilities. That Baldwin, who left Harlem first for Greenwich Village and later for Paris, would transcend these difficult beginnings to become a citizen of the world—famously sparring in one instance with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the necessity of civil rights legislation—was evidence of his remarkable talent, unparalleled intellect, and the sheer force of his principles. As the poet Nikky Finney put it in her introduction to Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, Baldwin would come to be regarded as “the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century.” He spoke about his early life, and of his difficult relationship with his stepfather—a domineering presence in Baldwin’s youth—in a 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark:
Baldwin published his landmark collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, with Beacon Press two years after his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was published. Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays in Notes of a Native Son capture a view of black life and thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America.
Published later in his life, the poems in Jimmy’s Blues complete that fusion between the personal and the public that readers would come to expect from Baldwin’s work. The verse is spare yet expansive, lyrical, musical, both searching and aware. They are poems written over a lifetime that startle in their intimacy. In her introduction to the book, Finney writes of Baldwin’s intense poetic engagement with the world:
James Baldwin, as poet, was incessantly paying attention and always leaning into the din and hum around him, making his poems from his notes of what was found there, making his outlines, his annotations, doing his jotting down, writing from the mettle and marginalia of his life, giving commentary, scribbling, then dispatching out to the world what he knew and felt about that world. James Baldwin, as poet, was forever licking the tip of his pencil, preparing for more calculations, more inventory, moving, counting each letter being made inside the abacus of the poem.
Finney’s introduction concludes with an anecdote that, like many anecdotes from Baldwin’s life, sounds both extraordinary and inevitable: Baldwin confronting the rage of the times with searing honesty and conviction:
In 1963, James Baldwin visited San Francisco. The journey was amazingly caught on fuzzy black-and-white, educational TV in the KQED documentary Take This Hammer. One morning during his visit he found himself speaking with a group of frustrated young Black men standing there on the street. One of the young men reports, “There will never be a Negro president.” Baldwin asks him why he believes this. The young man responds, hardly catching his breath: “We can’t even get a job. How can we be president if we can’t even get a job” You see Baldwin on camera move instantly closer to the storm raging from their ring of eyes to his. You see and feel the fire in their faces and in his. He knows this gathering storm well. He can hear the sounds of the thunder gathering deep in his ear. He has seen this same kind of lightning flash, hit, and burn down whole countries, whole neighborhoods, whole city corners, with their standing communities of young Black men. He himself has been soaked in this despair before. His inclination is to lead them away from the storm, but he’s in the storm too, and he won’t lie to them like everybody else has lied. He looks at them with great love. He can see the oil in the water on their cheeks. “There will be a Negro president,” Baldwin says calmly. “But it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.”
That is the miracle and the conundrum of James Arthur “Jimmy” Baldwin. The teen preacher turned humanist. The resolutely American expatriate. The voice of rationality for a generation on the edge of revolt. The probing intelligence, unsatisfied by facile or convenient truths. Baldwin was never easy to place in a box, which is exactly why he remains so important to us today. Though he died in 1987, and though the world has changed dramatically in the meantime, one feels we still have more to learn from him.
In a closing poem from Jimmy’s Blues, entitled “Amen,” Baldwin spoke of the strange covenant the living have with aging and mortality. Like so much of Baldwin’s writing, the poem resists superficial categorization. It begins in denial and ends in intimacy. What comes between is the journey, the frustration and the growth, and the ultimate, though not quite unwelcome acceptance. It is Baldwin channeling all of human experience in an moment, and yet another instance of what the playwright Lorraine Hansberry called his “greatest gift”: That Baldwin, when he spoke, spoke not simply for himself, his sexuality, his race, or his country. He spoke for all of those things, and then he spoke for all the rest as well.
No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.
I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge