James Baldwin, We Celebrate You

by Lauren Wingate

Today would have been the 90th birthday of American essayist, novelist, and poet James Baldwin. To celebrate this, many schools are introducing his writing for the first time into their classrooms, challenging the idea that youth are unable to handle his language and frank discussions about race, sex, and gender. The New York Live Arts: Live Ideas Festival has declared its second annual celebration "The Year of Baldwin," in which they will dedicate the whole of their five-day festival to the works of Baldwin. This will include the premier of Nothing Personal, a play based on the novel written in collaboration with Richard Avedon.

James Baldwin, NYC 1975  // Photo by Anthony Barboza

James Baldwin, NYC 1975 // Photo by Anthony Barboza

It is with deep intentionality that Baldwin’s literary voice is resurfacing. We find ourselves in a time in which the conversations about and understandings of race, gender, and sexuality have become destitute, especially in classrooms, due to the misguided belief that we live in a post racial, non-biased society. Educators, both inside and outside of the classroom, are encouraging us all to acknowledge the ways that we are separate in order to move forward in honoring our likeness.

I discovered Baldwin in high school. I admit it was his name that first caught my ears. Being part of a youth-driven spoken word community, I heard the names of several thought-changing people of color without knowing too much about them. I took it upon myself to research these people, and Baldwin's name came up so often that I had to investigate. The first quote I highlighted was found in his collection of essays, The Fire Next Time:

"You were born into a society, which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned… in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, “you exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine -- but trust your experience." (8-9)

This passage spoke directly to the internal struggles I was faced with--ideas of truth as they related to personal versus social views of reality. Baldwin’s voice became a subtle soundtrack to my learning. He provided me with determination, and held me in a continuum of historical presence that I needed in order to attune my action to my intention in the world.

It is this insight that he still offers us. Thank you, and happy birthday, James Baldwin.