The fire this time – the legacy of James Baldwin

Lanre Bakare in The Guardian:

1990In the opening to his 1962 New Yorker essay Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin remembers walking around his neighbourhood of Harlem as a 14-year-old, wondering if his fate would trap him there. “What I saw around me that summer in Harlem was what I had always seen,” he wrote. “Nothing had changed.” More than 50 years on, Baldwin’s words and philosophy have travelled thousands of miles from 110th street. His public image has been on a journey, from literary sensation with his debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1952 to his searing non-fiction work in the 60s that saw him revered as one of America’s most prominent public intellectuals. Thirty years since he died of stomach cancer in 1987, an expat in the south of France, there is reinvigorated interest in Baldwin and his ideas. February sees the release of I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary by Haitian director Raoul Peck that takes Baldwin’s final, unfinished project – a book about the lives and murders of his friends Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers – as a starting point, before analysing Baldwin’s sometimes strained and difficult relationship with the civil rights movement. In March, Taschen will publish a special edition of The Fire Next Time with images from Life magazine photographer Steve Schapiro.

Peck’s film is the latest in a string of events and retrospectives that have put Baldwin back in the public imagination. The ball began rolling in 2014 with Columbia University’s year-long programme pegged to his 90th birthday. Since then, there have been film festivals, exhibitions dedicated to Baldwin, and musical theatre inspired by his writing. As the Black Lives Matter protests unfolded around the US, there was a collection of writing – including an entry from the Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson – which took inspiration from Baldwin. His work has been used to explain everything from Trump to Dylann Roof and the Charleston church shooting. Then, in 2015, came Ta-Nehisi Coates’s bestseller turned must-read commentary on contemporary race relations in America, Between The World And Me, which was inspired by Baldwin’s own essay collection, The Fire Next Time.

More here.

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