Notes of a Native Son

A good deal of the time James Baldwin’s writing stretches beyond what I’m able to comprehend or pay reference to. I remember listening to John Berger and Michael Silverblatt discuss his writing during an interview – we will all, always, be laps behind him. His clarity and precision is unmatched. As is his attention to nuance, the force and the focus of his anger and his commitment to love and the improvement of life.

One of the things which affected me most in his writing is his unwavering lack of sentimentalism and his disavowal of soft thinking. ‘Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty… the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mark of cruelty.’

James Baldwin emerged as a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism and gay tolerance in the 1950s and '60s America, having lived and worked for many years in Paris, getting by with very little and gradually making his name through his many works as novels, essays, plays, fiction and social criticism. He also advocated a kind of nationalism and its potential positive impact when understood for what it is – something to be viewed with fresh insight in the context of an America redoubling on itself. Baldwin was the eldest of nine children; his stepfather was a minister and at age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature and began writing and speaking in earnest – he was a fantastic and profoundly moving orator also. Videos of his interviews on youtube (for example) should be revisited periodically; and his interviews in the Paris Review (if you aren’t familiar with these – their decades-long running series of interviews called ‘the art of fiction’ or ‘the art of non-fiction’ are a blessing) is required reading.


Non fiction
Beacon Press
James Baldwin

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