What does it mean to be inspired? One might feel the need to create art, or to go out and walk in marches for social justice, and in other ways one might choose to have a child, or live everywhere in the honesty of their own self-identification. Great and humble acts are performed every day through inspiration, and truly without it, humanity would have been lost a long time ago. There is a kind of connection between encouragement and support when it comes to feeling inspired, and together these three qualities allow for some of the most important changes on a personal and social level. A man named James Baldwin was a great source of light in this regard, shining out on the world a powerful and urgent message about people, community, and self.
Having grown up with an abusive stepfather, and experiencing the kinds of racism which were common in New York in the 1940s, he had an incredibly difficult childhood. Though, in the midst of these challenges, Baldwin began to shine at an early age, composing the school song, at where he attended the P.S. 24 on 128th Street in Harlem, which was routinely sung until its closing. During his time in the US, Baldwin’s life was fraught with this kind of to and fro experience of personal development and realization of self-worth and the constant barrier of systemic racism which kept him from pursuing his own path. It was after a particularly frustrating experience that he decided to leave the US and move to France where he resided for most of the rest of his life.
In his first novel, ‘Go Tell It On The Mountains’, he explored the complex themes of the problematic nature of the Pentecostal Church in the Africa-American community of Harlem. Next he explored the issues of homosexuality and bisexuality, in another groundbreaking work of his called ‘Giovanni’s Room’. Being a African-American homosexual man himself, this was a great and personal surge forward in the discussion of topics which were deeply taboo in the mainstream culture. Baldwin further explored these themes in ‘Another Country’ and dealt with interracial issues amidst those of sexuality. He was dealing with these controversial themes well before the gay rights movement.
James Baldwin’s contribution to writing, the civil rights movement, and society in general is not often enough recognized in the contemporary forum. He was peer to Martin King Jr. and Malcom X, and he also met with JFK in regards to the civil rights movement. As a homosexual he was even maligned by others in the movement, but regardless he brought others into the fray and was one of the greatest spokespersons of the whole process.
From all accounts the endless list of his famous friendships were filled with relationships that were endeared to his constant kindness and openness and desire to create a thriving communication through the power of language, which he used so well. It is in this way he is so renown, and accurately alluded to in Toni Morrison’s eulogy for him at his death in 1987. James Baldwin is a figure whose contributions are still being unpacked and returned to as being not only an integral figure to his time and place throughout many mediums, but an inspiration to anyone who shares in the warmth and grace which he brought to the world no matter the barriers he came up against.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette