These days the world has come together to protest and pay tribute to George Floyd, a victim of the police brutality that African Americans have suffered for decades. So it is important to remember those who gave us a gift of reflection on the social injustices that still cast a shadow over the world. This is the case of James Baldwin, a writer who reflected the contradictions that prevailed in the United States, the social marginalization and the hypocrisy that reigns among communities in large cities.
James Baldwin was born in 1924 and was the oldest of nine children. He grew up in Harlem under the tutelage of his stepfather, a very stern preacher who gave Baldwin a very difficult childhood. For this reason he was linked to the Pentecostal Church, forming himself to follow in his father’s footsteps. He came to work as a preacher, but experienced the conflict that the church itself generated regarding homosexuality and certain racial issues. So when his stepfather died, the young man was 19 years old and left the church, moving to the bohemian neighborhood of Manhattan where he began to write his first reflections while earning some money in low-paying jobs.
At the age of 24, he decides to leave life in the United States behind him to take a trip to Paris where he takes on an important role as an activist for racial equality. In addition, the French capital marked a very significant period for the writer, as it was during this time that he published his first novel, entitled “Go and Tell it in the Mountains”. A novel in which the protagonist projects certain elements common to the writer’s life. A young teenager named John lives with his mother Elizabeth and his stepfather Gabriel in the New York neighborhood of Harlem. Gabriel is a preacher in a neighborhood church known as the Temple of Baptized Fire. However, far from practicing kindness, he shows himself to be a despotic, offensive and excessively strict man. The novel intertwines the story of young John with those of his mother, father and aunt, and in addition to addressing religion and racism, Baldwin shows how family expectations and perceptions impact people who are struggling to survive. He focuses the reader’s attention on the characters as he gains a much better understanding of the transcendental part of the play.
In 1957 he returned to the United States and joined other voices in the movement such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X to defend the civil rights so longed for by African Americans. However, with the death of these two figures, years later, Baldwin felt into a disillusionment that was evident in his work and his works began to take on a much more strident tone.
On the other hand, he wrote a series of essays in which he gives a very interesting vision of the reality he lived. The first book that gathers 10 of his essays is “Notes of a Native Son”. In this book he reflects on race, classes, culture and exile, and his civil rights activism is recorded, but also a critical exercise towards certain novels such as “Native Son” by Richard Wright. It reflects the confusion and bitterness that afflicts black Americans, exemplifies how racist societies force the individual to restrict his emotions, the development of a self-destructive relationship with the world. From his personal experience he builds a vision of the problems of the society in which he grew up. The book is structured in three sections according to the subject matter. The first part contains essays on the representation of African Americans in art, the second focuses on aspects of the life of the black community in the United States during and shortly after World War II in which he explores his origins, the home and the culture he had to understand in order to become what he was. And the third section covers his experiences in Europe, which were a crucial process by which he learned from his distance from the culture he came from and was able to know and accept the identity he expressed in his writings.
This compilation has been proclaimed one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th century. Many of the essays had been previously published in magazines and newspapers. Without a doubt, it is a timeless piece despite the years in which it was written and helps to understand the disadvantages of blacks over the years.
In addition, he addressed his sexual orientation in “Giovanni’s Room”, a topic that was considered taboo at the time and explores the conflict it generates in the David, the protagonist, as well as the community in which he moves. He is inspired by his experiences in Paris.
Finally, James Baldwin spent the last years of his life in Saint Paul (France). Without a doubt, he was a writer with a transcendental vision with which to understand the value of experiences and social structures. Baldwin felt the need to become a “witness to the truth” without pretending to be a leader, and he fulfilled the goal of sharing a very personal vision through his extensive and exciting legacy.