Why you should read James Baldwin for Black History Month and every month after that

James Baldwin’s works are just as relevant today as in the years they were written. (photo courtesy of wikimedia)

The first time I read James Baldwin, his words left me in awe and wanting to read more. I first read Giovanni’s Room about a year ago and have made it my personal goal to read all his works. Although his works were written in the 1950s and 1960s, they still resonate today and for the future. Every thought is well defined. Every sentence is needed. His prose is short and particular, but demands to be read. 

Giovanni’s Room

David, an American man, stays in Paris while his girlfriend travels in Spain. He is a closeted gay man who meets an Italian man named Giovanni. They fall in love. But after a tragedy and the return of David’s girlfriend, David’s life is changed forever. This novel was written in 1956 which, as you can imagine, was highly controversial. How could an African-American novelist write about homosexuality? But this novel is not just about homosexuality, it is ultimately a novel on love. As we near Valentine’s Day, treat yourself to a novel about the rawness, perils, and passion that love brings. I have re-read the ending for this novel about twenty times. I won’t spoil it for you, but it will leave you wanting more.

“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin was published in 1956. (photo courtesy of author)

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.” 

James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Go Tell It On the Mountain

This was the first novel that James Baldwin wrote, published in 1953. It is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells of a young boy named John who lives in Harlem in the 1930s. He tells of his upbringing and the impact the Pentecostal Church has on him and his family. It also switches to the viewpoints of his mother, biological father, and stepfather. The novel is daring in the way it portrays the lives of one African-American family because each person is not who they seem to be and it delves into how they are impacted by religion, racism, and abuse. Whether one is religious or not, the novel provokes questions on how to live one’s life, where one is going, and how love can get us through. 

“Go Tell it On the Mountain” by James Baldwin was published in 1953. (photo courtesy of author)

“It’s a long way,” John said slowly, “ain’t it? It’s a hard way. It’s uphill all the way.” 

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity’

If these novels don’t convince you, or you simply do not have time to read a whole book, I would highly recommend listening to his speech entitled “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” The mere sound of his voice is enough to captivate the listener. Then comes the words. He starts out by saying, “I really don’t like words like ‘artist’ or ‘integrity’ or ‘courage’ or ‘nobility’. I have a kind of distrust for all those words because I don’t really know what those words mean. To anyone listening, this opening line would seem ironic. Why is this accomplished writer telling us he doesn’t understand these words? He later goes on to say that these words are merely “attempts to get at something which feels real.” He has a point. All of us writers who call ourselves artists are doing so because we want to feel validated by what we are doing. But would that change if we never call ourselves artists?

“I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist. It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”

James Baldwin, ‘The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity’

Other works to read by James Baldwin:

Contemporary Black Authors to Add to your List:

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Jesmyn Ward 
  • Octavia Butler

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