More than thirty years after his death, James Baldwin is recapturing the American imagination in politics and popular culture. Black Lives Matter, “Moonlight,” “Between the World and Me,” and Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” all resurrect Baldwin’s voice. The major themes of his writing are also evident throughout today’s headlines: police malfeasance, expansive sexuality, class struggle, and the marginalization of black Americans. Baldwin drew on his struggle of overlapping marginalization in his writing — in one interview he described being born poor, black, and gay as “hitting the jackpot” for sourcing material. But his intersectional politics made it hard for the author to find a home with the political movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Baldwin was an exile who remained intensely realistic, patient and hopeful about his country’s transformation.
Marc Dudley, a professor of English at North Carolina State University, contextualizes Baldwin’s works in his recently published book, “Understanding James Baldwin” (University of South Carolina Press/2019). Host Frank Stasio talks with Dudley about what modern readers can learn from Baldwin’s pragmatic hope.
On Baldwin’s return to prominence:
Baldwin was decades ahead of his time, seeing things in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s that we are just seeing now. Things are just shaking out in every headline that we see today.
I like to introduce him — whenever I teach a class — as being this amalgam of all sorts of great things. I mean, he was an essayist first. I think he speaks first with an essayist’s voice, speaking about social issues that concern everybody. But he was a fiction writer, and at his best, there's nobody better. He is highly anthologized, so he's a short story writer. ... One of the things I suggest in my book … Is he speaks with a poet's voice, and he dabbled in poetry in his last years of his life as well. But in the middle of all of that, he was, what I would call, a social justice warrior before it was really a thing.
On Baldwin’s intersectional politics:
I just taught a course on black literature … And I introduced Baldwin with “Giovanni's Room,” and several of the people in the class … Were a little surprised to find out that the protagonist was white. This text comes out in 1956, and he’s speaking to ideas of equality that have nothing to do with race … He's writing this book at a time where he was being sort of egged on by publishing houses and writers in the public, with their own expectations, to write about what he would call ‘Negro life.’ And this was his thumbing of the nose at the establishment and his establishing himself as an artist. First, this was a grand experimentation, and I think it succeeded.
On Baldwin’s blues:
Everything about what Baldwin wrote … Is steeped in the blues. The essence of the blues is survival and testifying to it. And there's something beautiful about that. And we share that in common. There's a universal reality to that.
And then also is a great example of the essence of rebellion. Everything about the black spirit, Baldwin would would say, [is] in the essence of rebellion, when the community shouldn't have survived for all these generations.
On America’s self-evaluation:
None of us likes to look in the mirror and to, you know, start nitpicking or denigrating or whatever. But self-evaluation is going to be important. All of his essays in the ‘60s were all about … Self-evaluation. America is not ready to do that. So coming back to that Margaret Mead clip, he's a realist in that moment: Until we're ready to do this as a collective, we're never going to get there. But once again, what's the alternative?
Note: This conversation originally aired August 6, 2019.