I’m Reading James Baldwin for the 1st Time as an Adult, and I’m in Love

I may be late to the party that’s been going on forever, but anytime is the right time to discover this man’s magic.

James Baldwin 
James Baldwin  RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images

As a book-loving black, literary homo-thug who writes openly about life, sexuality, society, the innumerable consequences of white terribleness and the absence of Teen Summit in post-Y2K childhood development (hint: They’re doomed), I’ve always felt that Sir James Baldwin occupied a peculiar space in my world. I’ve always known that his work was important to literature and that his voice and perspective were especially special to black folks because Uncle Jimmy had a gift and was phenomenal at using his words to tell it like it really is.

Other book-loving writerly people I know often use superlatives in their praise about his work. But beyond that time in high school when I bulls–ted my way through a book report on If Beale Street Could Talk and the occasional brief essay over the years, I had never really read Baldwin at length. The reverence that shapes so many discussions of his work had me feeling that I was missing out on a major rite of passage in my writerly growth, particularly as I struggle and stress my way through this book of essays I’m cooking up. I needed some inspiration, so I figured it was time to take the plunge and spend some time with a wordsmith many of my fellow chocolatey, homo, writer homies adore so fiercely.

When I posted on Facebook a few weeks back about wanting to dive into Baldwin’s work, at least five people recommended The Fire Next Time as a starting point for me, lover of a wonderful essay. More people than expected said they preferred his essays to his fiction by far, so I intended to start there. But I went with Go Tell It on the Mountain, his 1953 semiautobiographical rage fest of a novel set on an eventful Saturday in 1935 Harlem, because it was available at the library the day I was ready to start the journey. I was sold by the third sentence of the first page. “If his essays are better than this,” I texted a friend after finishing the second page, “I need to find a job that will pay me to read James Baldwin books and run the fan club full time. Any suggestions?”

Sir Baldwin’s words sing on the page. His explanations and descriptions are so lyrically precise that they leave no room for ambiguity. He perfectly captured the ridiculousness of the fire-and-brimstone and fear-based approach to parenting that I observe in aggressively churchy family members, and how blind faith renders otherwise brilliant and capable people sheeplike and disconnected from reality. His attention to detail is a wonder to behold, and even in all of his expansive rambles, his sidebars and embellishments are smart and relevant and flavor the writing in an enhancing but not overwhelming way. It felt effortless. It’s a pity I’ll never get to eat chicken and deconstruct Sister Act 2 with him.

Thanks to train delays and frequent voyages for food and adventure, I finished the novel in a few days and dove right into the cleverly titled Collected Essays, an addictive and massive assemblage of his nonfiction work, edited by Toni Morrison.

You remember, in the beginning of the video for Janet Jackson’s “If,” when the doors burst open and the curtains unfurled, announcing her arrival amid the fanfare, and she strutted regally down the stairs to f–k s–t up with the rest of the gang? That’s what his book’s “Autobiographical Notes” felt like for me. What an introduction. “Why is this five-page bio better than most damn books I read by contemporary writers?” I asked that same friend while browsing fonts for this “Uncle Jimmy” tattoo I want to get on my neck.

In one section that had me nodding aggressively on the train, he wrote this:

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way, and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.

It was like discovering an artist and everything you hear by that artist makes you twinkle with delight, as if the work were produced entirely for you. In “Everybody’s Protest Novel”—when, after dismantling and peeing on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s entire physical, ideological and literary existence, he wrote that the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer,” in reference to the book’s painfully dense intellectual shallowness—my soul let out a powerful Prince-like squeal. I’ve been known to maul a woefully misinformed white scoundrel (or two) on the page, so to see him artfully nail her raggedy ass to the wall, one obnoxiously “benevolent” strand of hair at a time, with such artistry, lyrical precision and nimbleness? It felt like motherf–king praise and worship.

I adore that he was equally unflinching in his critique of his people. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he writes about the famed Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte’s on-screen collabo, Carmen Jones. He felt that the production benefited from a lack of white folks, saying that “this seals the action off, as it were, in a vacuum in which the spectacle of color is divested of its danger.”