Commentary

Celebrating the gifted James Baldwin

jamesbaldwinJames Baldwin was a gifted author and freedom fighter who made a big difference with his pen in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. During the past 12 months, notable academies and international literary organizations have paid tribute to the 90-year birthday observance of Baldwin. I knew James Baldwin as a trusted friend, but more importantly, he was a staunch supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.

Born in the heart of Harlem in 1924, Baldwin through the publication of his books and other writings was bold and courageous in his challenge to racial injustice and bigotry. I vividly remember in the 1960s James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

The social consciousness of Black Americans today is certainly full of awareness that our long struggle for equality, justice and empowerment must continue to be waged with renewed vigor and determination. The “rage” that is now being expressed in Black communities across the nation in response to videotaped incidents of racially motivated police brutality is not new.

What is new about the growing “Black Lives Matters” movement among younger Blacks is the effective use of social media to increase their political and social consciousness concerning these protests and demands for justice. Thus, James Baldwin’s writings decades ago have still proven to be prophetic and visionary in this day and time.

A coalition of literary and cultural groups, including Harlem Stage, New York Live Arts, Columbia University School of the Arts, Harlem Book Fair along with other groups in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and in Atlanta have declared 2014 -2015 “The Year of James Baldwin.” This was proclaimed in acknowledgment of Baldwin’s literary genius as a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and freedom fighter. I am hoping that a new generation of Black writers will pick up Baldwin’s pen and penetrating spirit to publish more books and inspirational writings.

The Fire Next Time was one of James Baldwin’s most powerful books. In the chapter titled, “My Dungeon Shook,” James wrote an impassioned plea to his young nephew: “… [your grandfather] is dead, he never saw you, and he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him … you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”

As a mentor to many various hip-hop artists during the past 30 years, I always refer them to passages from The Fire Next Time. The use of the “N-word” is still too casually used today by a generation of cultural artists who aspire to advance the cause of freedom and equality for all. With artistic freedom as a right also comes the responsibility to help lift people up to higher level of consciousness.
When I was falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned in the 1970s as a member of the Wilmington Ten civil rights case in North Carolina, James Baldwin wrote an eloquent open letter from France in January of 1977 to President Jimmy Carter. The New York Times and numerous African American owned newspapers that were members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) published Baldwin’s missive to Carter.

In a classic literary style of Baldwin, he chided President Carter about the injustices of the Wilmington Ten, the Charlotte Three and other U.S political prisoners. Baldwin wrote:
“I have a thing to tell you, but with a heavy heart, for it is not a new thing. In North Carolina, as I write, nine black men and one white woman are under a sentence of a total of 282 years in various prisons on various charges, including arson….. In Charlotte, three black men are on bail and facing sentences equally savage, on charges equally preposterous.”

Near the end of his letter, Baldwin concluded. “I am not so much trying to bring to your mind the suffering of a despised people – a very comforting notion, after all, for most Americans – as the state and the fate of a nation of which you are the elected leader. The situations of the Wilmington 10, and the Charlotte 3, are very small symptoms of the monstrous and continuing wrong for which you, as the elected leader, are now responsible.”

President Carter never responded to James Baldwin’s open letter. Ten years later, Baldwin passed away in Saint Paul de Venice, France. I am encouraged today to witness a small cadre of young authors who are keeping the style and spirit of the literary genius of James Baldwin alive. But we need more. Black America’s future will be further sustained to the extent to which we keep fighting for freedom with our pens, sermons, creative arts, innovative businesses and leadership development in all areas of human endeavor. We thank James Baldwin for his good work and example.

Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is the President and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) and can be reached for national advertisement sales and partnership proposals at: dr.bchavis@nnpa.org; and for lectures and other professional consultations at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc

July 8, 2015
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