To put it simply, I love James Baldwin. As a kid, he was probably the first Black writer that I read with any real sense of purpose, and the first writer for whom I was soundly reprimanded for reading.
Travel back in time with me to 1987 to my senior high school English class, taught by Chi-Chi Peak, and yes, she looked just liked her name sounds, like a little bird, flitting around the classroom correcting our English and encouraging us to embrace Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I loved. When it came time to select a text for our book reports, I wanted to write about one of the few Black authors that I knew at the time, James Baldwin. (Morrison and Walker had both been writing for decades, but their work had not received the status that it has today.) I had read If Beale Street Could Talk and fallen in love. From that point forward, I read everything by Baldwin I could get my hands on, including his famous collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, and Giovanni’s Room.
Somehow I figured out that Baldwin was gay, and even though at that time I didn’t know that was something we had in common, I felt as if Baldwin was my big brother, uncle, something. He became my hero, and I wanted to write the kinds of essays that he wrote, essays that would propel a nation divided by racism into action, essays that would stir up emotions in others that Baldwin’s work had stirred in me. Mrs. Peak didn’t want me to write about Baldwin, and she wanted to know why I chose this author rather than one of the authors on our reading list. Well, to me it was quite obvious, he was Black and wrote about all of the things I cared about, racism, oppression, love, family, religion, all of the issues that shaped the world I lived in. He was my spiritual brother, and I wanted everyone I knew to appreciate his work too. Mrs. Peak did not share my enthusiasm for Baldwin, and indeed, from this point forward I was “militant.” I guess you could say that I still am.
I eventually won the book report battle with Mrs. Peak; I was one of her best students and I suspect that she thought she was indulging me by allowing me to write on Baldwin. She “punished” me by making my report twice a long as every one else’s. I was happy to oblige her. My sixteen year-old self saw this as a major victory for my civil rights; I could now share my love of Baldwin with the class. I was a very shy, very quiet, bookworm of a kid, but I had learned that I had a voice, that if I demanded to be heard, people would listen. I also knew that Baldwin was worth fighting for, and that it was my duty to defend him. Looking back, nearly thirty years later, I see how that moment of resistance has helped to shape my identity as a writer, scholar, and Black feminist. I had not read Audre Lorde at that time, and I would come to identify as a Black lesbian feminist some 25 years after I first read Baldwin. It was through my reading of Baldwin that I learned that I could love myself just as I am, that I could use my pen and typewriter to fight racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Jimmy Baldwin died the year I graduated from high school, and I wept as if I had known him in real life. Even now, some 27 years later, I still feel the loss. Today, I celebrate the life of one of America’s greatest writers, activists, and humanitarians by sharing a little of my experience with his work. How will you celebrate the life and work of James Baldwin?