Episode: Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

Open Source with Christopher Lydon Logo
Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.


Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.



The post Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century appeared first on Open Source with Christopher Lydon.

Open Source with Christopher Lydon
Users who viewed this episode also viewed...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > The Reporter’s Reporter

Seymour Hersh, known as Sy, made a brilliant career, at his best, of exposing Official US, at its worst: the Army massacre at My Lai, in Vietnam. The sadistic prison management at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The forbidden spying by the CIA on American citizens. Sy Hersh has been the scariest scoop artist in journalism for 50 years — he scared his editors, his readers, his news-business rivals and his targets: who else virtually declared that his job was to stop Dick Cheney from going to war on Iran, and prevailed...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > The Tower and the Square

A conversation about Brexit, yellow vests, and the state of the European Union with Arthur Goldhammer, Vanessa Bee, Julian Bourg, and Alan Rusbridger. A nasty winter of discontent is in the air, blowing around old towers of power: Paris, London and of course Washington. Like everything else in the Digital Age, fear, anger and disruption travel together through an invisible network—from left-out villages to posh precincts in shiny rich capitals of France, Britain, the US...

Open Source with Christopher Lydon > Karl Ove Knausgaard on Art and Loneliness

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote a 6-volume selfie that a lot of us can’t stop reading. My Struggle he called it, looking inward and talking to himself for thousands of pages. Autumn, his new book, is a relief for him and us: It looks outward, in short pieces, letters to a new daughter before she was born, about Stubble Fields, Telephones, Wellington boots, chimneys, the painter Vincent Van Gogh...
Comments (0)

Login or Sign up to leave a comment.

Log in
Sign up

Be the first to comment.