2014 marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the great American writer James Baldwin (1924-1987), a major figure whose works spanned novels, essays, poems, and plays. He conveyed a sense of finely tuned rage at the ubiquitous racism in America in his essays (The Fire Next Time), wrote a memorable novel about the experiences of a gay expatriate in Paris (Giovanni’s Room), another about 1950s Greenwich Village hipsters (Another Country), and was a renowned public intellectual and spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Reading his work for me I remember as a kind of rite of passage as his work particularly speaks to the anger, confusion, and questions of identity so characteristic of youth, but I believe his poetic resonance crosses time as well. He was a major influence on other writers, including Toni Morrison, and was a friend of such seemingly disparate figures as Miles Davis and Marlon Brando. Perhaps the fact that he lived most of his later years in France has diffused his legacy and status in America, but I was very pleased to read that several New York cultural institutions are celebrating his work with events throughout the course of the year. You can read an article covering this in The Brooklyn Rail, 7 life lessons from Baldwin’s Paris Review interview at BreakingBrown.com, and for a fascinating full-length documentary screened on US public television a number of years ago you can watch James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.
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