Watch: James Baldwin, in Our Words and His

Drawing courtesy of Detroit artist Sabrina Nelson
Drawing courtesy of Detroit artist Sabrina Nelson

James Baldwin is unequivocally one of the most prolific writers of his time.

A queer black man, he brought life to the African-American experience through his novels, essays, debates and public lectures. And now a new generation is getting to experience the power of those words in the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro.

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Baldwin wrote for his life and the lives of his brothers and sisters—who were muted, unheard and forgotten—so that the world would begin to understand how America, a country he loved dearly, created (and perpetuated) a system whose premise is, by design, the oppression of blacks.

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“His words almost sounded like prophecy, but really, they were just understanding—particularly a good understanding of whiteness and white supremacy,” says writer Robert Jones Jr.

Indeed, Baldwin spoke truth to power.

“If they come for you in the morning, then they will be coming for us at night,” said James Baldwin in his prophetic 1970 letter to Angela Davis. Decades later, these words still ring true.

Here, a range of voices—including actor Daniel Beaty, singer-songwriter Imani Uzuri and writer Robert Jones Jr.—pay homage to Baldwin through a reading of his work “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis”:

Afro-Cuban woman that was born and branded in New York. When León isn't actually creating cool videos, she's thinking of cool videos that she can create.

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DISCUSSION

When I was in high school, I stumbled across Go Tell It On The Mountain in the library. (Yeah, I know—it has bad language and sex and WHAT ABOUT THE CHIIIIIILDRENNNN!!1!) Reading that book changed my life. Change the locale from Harlem to 1960s Missouri and you have the story of my childhood. I finally felt that someone got me. Someone understood my life in a way I could never have explained. And then I read If Beale Street Could Talk. And then Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. And goddamn if he wasn’t tapped into my brain because he said stuff I could never have articulated, but which I could see and feel. Then I got to college and read The Fire Next Time and that was IT. I devoured everything he wrote and it’s just more prescient with the passing of time. Some days I’m filled with hope and other days it’s the bottomless pit of despair. Just like Brother James always said.