If the author of Hebrews is right—and the word of God is razor-sharp, able to separate soul and spirit, joint and marrow—then perhaps James Baldwin wrote the very words of God.
An essayist, novelist, poet and 20th-century prophet, Baldwin pierced the flesh of the American experiment like a soul surgeon distinguishing between the body politic’s healthy tissue and afflicted fibers. Coming to his words nearly 30 years after his death, I recognized the signs of my own sickness.
Baldwin’s writing transcends the limited dimensions of ink on paper; when loosed, it assumes the length, width, height, and depth of real love. His books exposed my selfishness and doubt, the privilege I use to whitewash the world. Though devastated, I thanked him for the diagnosis. And he became my patron saint of working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.
Baldwin remains the truest writer America ever knew. Anyone aspiring to shepherd us, to be the best of us, must stare down America’s particular sins of racism and exclusion, then light the path to our pardon. Whether in blistering essays, or through the lush interiority of his novels, Baldwin still sees America as it is, then offers gracious glimpses of who we might be.
I first met Baldwin at the end of myself—or, at least, the end of my ability to understand myself as an American. God answered my prayers for wisdom through Notes on a Native Son, No Name in the Street and The Fire Next Time. There, Baldwin’s prose broke my heart and then enlarged it.
Baptized in the distinct beauty of blackness, I rose to newness of life, awake to how people move through space and history. Feeling some of my limbs as if for the first time, I finally noticed the space I take up and take from others, the damage I deal my neighbor.
Then I turned my face toward Baldwin’s fiction. No sermons there, only paintings. Reading his characters’ minds, then bathing their bodies and souls in light, he testifies to a truth so often missed by people who look like me. Nothing is only personal; nothing is only political. As Ms. Lauryn Hill, put it, Everything is everything.
We witness this in Tish and Fonny, the couple at the heart of If Beale Street Could Talk. Walking beside them across New York City asphalt, we eavesdrop on their private hopes. We adopt their ache as our own: for justice to finally consummate its relationship with mercy, producing a peace child.
We silently mouth along as the characters of Go Tell It On the Mountain recite Baldwin’s truth. Staring at the altar, they try to discern the difference between sacrament and sexual desire. They wonder if becoming oneself is the same as being caught up in Godself.
In every moment, on every page of every work, Baldwin’s protagonists—whether inventions or the man himself—work out the question Who then can be saved? Fear burns within them; trembling radiates out from the blood to the body. Taken together, his canon poses the question to an entire country.
Perhaps God will spare—and even condescend to bless—America, Baldwin posits. But not before it accepts reality—redemption is an overhaul, not the mere dressing of a wound and unity is not cheap; it is realized through repentance. Baldwin offers a radical reading of E pluribus unum—one which accounts for burdens before sharing them.
The great writer Dante Stewart recently tweeted a passage from Baldwin’s “To Crush a Serpent.” He speaks to the entwined nature of redemption; we should fix these words in our hearts and wear them on our foreheads:
Salvation is real, as mighty, and as impersonal as the rain, and it is yet as private as the rain in one’s face. It is never accomplished; it is to be reaffirmed every day and every hour. There is absolutely no salvation without love: this is the wheel in the middle of the wheel. Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself.
Astute readers stop short of laying out the Gospel According to James Baldwin. He and his literary delegates lived within a vice grip—squeezed by others’ sins and their own. Whatever Baldwin believed, he swore by the fear of God and the inevitability of reckoning.
No doubt, Baldwin’s great eyes would view me, leaning on the everlasting arms of the American church, with suspicion. As a white man, I own no claim to him; as a writer, I am not worthy to untie his shoes. But I take him at his word, one delivered during a moment in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
Facing white culture, feeling its need for change, Baldwin aims his words like lightning under control. “I know more about you than you know about me,” he says.
And so I accept his words like the wounds of a friend. I want to know what he knows—about me and him, about how this land might become our land. My lack of knowledge and love laid bare by Baldwin’s words, I prostrate myself before God and before my neighbor asking to be saved.
Where to begin with James Baldwin:
Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) Sinners and saints are never so much the same as in Baldwin’s book of revelation. The novel, which undoubtedly draws on his own experiences as a pastor’s son and a teen preacher himself, peels back layers of holiness and wickedness in one Harlem family history. The inner monologues here alternate between prayers of salvation and requests for God to hurry up and get on with the damnation we deserve.
The Fire Next Time (1963) Modern readers acquainted with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ epistle Between the World and Me will recognize Baldwin’s work as its forefather. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin recounts volumes of truth about the promises America makes, and breaks, to its black citizens.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated documentary occasionally suffers from a slickness unbecoming its subject. But for Baldwin beginners, the film offers a powerful portrait of the man in his own words—those recounted by narrator Samuel L. Jackson and in archival clips of Baldwin himself. That footage, of the writer calling out the American empire’s lack of clothes, is as important and dynamic as any you’ll see.