Great Americans You Need To Know: James Baldwin

One of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century was James Baldwin, a voice best known for his works, Notes from a Native Son, The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room. His writing voice was as powerful as his spoken narration. His demeanor and his expressive eloquence made Baldwin an unforgettable character in society and American literature.

His insights into the chaos of the Post World War Two American experience, for African Americans, and for the nation as a whole, offer a surgical precision of nuance and exactitude that leaves a reader with a ruptured awareness, burst open with an altered reality. His ability to see and express what was apparent on the surface of society, yet also hidden by white privilege and traditional, conservative blindness to modernity, makes Baldwin an important writer, philosopher and social prophet for his time.

To see his real genius it is instructive to read through his essays and articles, as well as his novels. Watch his debates and lectures on television, preserved for us on YouTube. You will not be disappointed, as Baldwin has a whit and a whimsy that is both entertaining and challenging. How he says his critiques of race and society as almost as moving as what he is saying.

His observations on Martin Luther King Jr. were recorded for us in an article he wrote for The Atlantic magazine, after he traveled to Montgomery, Alabama to meet the young King, who had just finished a successful boycott of the bus system. The passages that follow were selected from this wonderful article, which has been preserved for us in the Penguin Portable Sixties Reader, a collection of writings that come highly recommended to every lover of history.

Baldwin shows his vision and character deconstruction in this first example, describing Martin Luther King, Jr. in Contrast to Booker T. Washington, a Civil Rights leader and icon of African American history.

“He is not, for example, to be confused with Booker T. Washington, whom we gratefully allowed to solve the racial problem single-handedly. It was Washington who assured us, in 1895, one year before it became law of the land, that the education of Negroes would not give them any desire to become equals; they would be content to remain – or, rather, after living for generations in the greatest intimacy with whites, to become – separate.”  [1]

Here we see how Baldwin can express not only who King is, by describing how he is not Booker T. Washington, but at the same time tell us what needs to be done differently to achieve Civil Rights from what has come before. He injects his own wisdom in the description of history, as he applies it to the present, which for him was the leadership of MLK.

The problem, as Baldwin sees it, is found in the expectations when it comes to solving the racial problem. We have a defect of immediate gratification. We want to live in a post racial society so badly that we rush to declare victory after the efforts of one champion is charged with defeating all our American racial demons. This , of course, is unrealistic, and yet has happened repeatedly throughout American history.

Baldwin goes on to explain how the Modern Civil Rights Movement is different from what has been tried before:

There will be no more Booker T. Washingtons. And whether we like it or not, and no matter how hard we oppose it, there will be no more segregated schools, there will be no more segregated anything. King is entirely right when he says that segregation is dead. The real question which faces the Republic is just how long, how violent and how expensive the funeral is going to be…” [2]

The Civil Rights Movement that Baldwin saw, and was the first to declare it to be so, was a movement that had multiple leaders and multiple fronts. Unlike Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey or W.E.B. Du Bois, the Modern Civil Rights Movement was one that was sustained by its long term, grass roots organization. It was the strength of organizers like Bayard Ruskin and A. Phillip Randolph, along with groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Montgomery Improvement Association that kept the volunteers in the field, the lawyers arguing in court and the media directed to where the action could best be shown. Combined, this was a racial hydra that could not be stopped by felling one mighty leader. In that it was more successful than anything that had come before, or anything that has been tried since.

For Baldwin, the real question wasn’t about segregation. The reality had been redrawn by King. White American could not unsee what he had revealed by protesting the buses in Montgomery. The question became, how deeply would white America deny what was obvious. Baldwin could not have predicted the depth of the white privileged that continues to deny the reality of racism in America even today. He noticed the reticence of white in Montgomery after King’s victory over the busing system. There was a pained silence; a hurt sense of feeling.

“This silence made me think of nothing so much as the silence which follows a really serious lovers’ quarrel: the whites, beneath their cold hostility, were mystified and deeply hurt. They had been betrayed by the Negroes, not merely because the Negroes had declined to remain in their “place,” but because the Negroes had declined to be controlled by the town’s image of them.And without this image, it seemed to me, the whites were abruptly and totally lost. The very foundations of their private and public worlds were being destroyed.” [3]

The sense of betrayal astutely anticipates the cries of reverse discrimination that American whites claim even today. These claims are unsupported by any evidence, but yet remain fixed in the minds of whose Americans nevertheless. It is this betrayal that they still feel, and which perpetuates the lie as if it were true. For America the foundation belief of their nation had always been that everyone was equal, as long as they conformed to a white sensibility that politely maintained a racial hierarchy, enforced by laws and vigilante violence if anyone were rude enough to question or challenge the proper way of things. King did just that, ans was considered a threat to the American way of life.

James Baldwin would be a metaphorical cheerleader for Martin Luther King’s drum major for truth. He was not so subtle in his depiction of the racial ugliness that was the American Way. He was often criticized for his beliefs, and was often superior in his ability to debate his detractors.

Sad though it is that Baldwin is gone now, we still have much of his writings and recording to enjoy. His voice today is as poignant as it was back then. His message just as powerful. We might be guided in our present condition by the wisdom of his perspective. By doing so we could be steered toward a brighter future, plotted along an arc of history that bends toward justice.


[1] Baldwin, James. The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King. The Portable Sixties Reader, Penguin Putnam, Inc. 2003. Pg. 8

[2] Baldwin, pg. 9

[3] Baldwin, pg. 10.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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