I found this picture of African-American man of letters James Baldwin in a bio some years ago and it remains a favorite. He’s standing on a concrete islet in the middle of a busy street, his large, somber eyes hidden behind sunglasses, his dress casual, his posture seemingly relaxed; like Miles Davis, Baldwin could appear cool and calm even while volcanic emotions stirred within. It’s not clear where Baldwin’s been, where’s he headed, what he’s reading, what he’s feeling, or if anyone around him even knows who he is besides the photographer. Is his pocketed right hand at rest or clenched in tension? Is he looking at someone or something, or lost in thought? Are his lips in a sly smile, or a pensive frown? Is he in a hurry, or taking his time? Is he in America, or in Europe, where he spent much of his adult life?
As a contemplative, expressive man, Baldwin would be pleased with the myriad questions this photo of him engenders; doubtless, he would revel in answering them and going off on the thoughtful, frank tangents that were his trademark throughout decades of novels, poems, plays, and essays.
Baldwin, who died in 1987 at age 63, felt the sting of discrimination and isolation in more than one way. He was black, gay, provocative, and unpredictable in an era of stubborn intolerance. He was also unafraid to wield pen as sword, slicing through hypocrisy, ignorance, conformity, all the enemies of art and enlightenment:
I don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. – from Autobiographical Notes
Northerners indulge in an extremely dangerous luxury [of feeling] that because they fought on the right side during the Civil War, and won, they have earned the right merely to deplore what is going on in the South, without taking any responsibility for it; and that they can ignore what is happening in Northern cities because what is happening [in the South] is worse. – from Nobody Knows My Name
Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace. – from a 1961 interview
Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. – from No Name in the Street
Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality. – attributed
Though he marched with civil rights activists and counted Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X among his friends, he came under attack himself for his sexuality and, later, by literary critics for supposedly being self-absorbed, unimaginative, bitter, resentful at being forgotten. The truth is that, till the end, his wit and geniality never left him; and his voice, prophetic and profound, is being reheard, reassessed by a world that failed to appreciate it while he lived, as he expected: “Any real artist will never be judged in the time of his time; whatever judgment is delivered in the time of his time cannot be trusted.”
James Baldwin remains a giant, a speaker (and seeker) of truth who, despite his contrariness, his complexities, his compulsions and foibles, is clear on his mission: to right injustice and demand assessment and accountability, while tempering that passion with a search for common ground and a vision of hope and reconciliation for all peoples. “There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation,” he wrote. “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”