Finding Guidance from Writer James Baldwin

Jan 16, 2017

At this time of great political change and uncertainty, some Charlottesville residents are looking to history for direction. Their guide is the writer James Baldwin, as WMRA’s Miranda Bennett reports.

Writing during and after the civil rights movement, James Baldwin is known for his piercing examination of the consequences of racial injustice and his call to all Americans, both black and white, to live up to the country's ideals. Mark Bell isn't surprised there's been a resurgence of interest in his writing.

MARK BELL: I think like a lot of people I've been listening to and reading some Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the course of listening to interviews with him, he sometimes offhandedly quotes Baldwin and I go, "whoa, wait a minute what's he talking about?" and that's really what got me more interested in Baldwin. I think it's worth more discussion.

And he got the chance to have that discussion this past weekend when the Jefferson School for African American Heritage hosted a public discussion of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. It was lead by Xavier Pickett, who's a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Virginia.

XAVIER PICKETT: I'm kind of approaching this reading as really an opportunity to really explore Baldwin, which is really an opportunity to explore America itself and to really consider the soul of this nation. And particularly given recent events of the elections and the past few years of the tumults of the time in the country, as a moment of deep soul reflection and not just reflection but hopefully to act in more effective ways to be able--as Baldwin would say, to achieve our country.

And that was a concern that many at the discussion expressed: how do we build a better country? Although James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time more than 50 years ago, Carly Margolis, another participant, felt like he could have been writing about this moment.  She read the book…

CARLY MARGOLIS: and was so struck by its resonance. I can't even. It came up in the conversation that he has lost no relevance. Even down to the choice of language that he uses about white America is just perfectly precise to what we're currently experiencing.

And according to Pickett, Baldwin's writing remains pertinent because of his preoccupation with how we understand our past, a past that we still haven't reckoned with collectively, as a country.

PICKETT: There's a way in which we've never progressed and that the past has always been something that we've tried to avoid and ignore and never actually to grapple with, looking in its face.

And throughout the discussion many participants did talk about feeling a personal and social obligation to really confront the country's racist foundations. And as Baldwin notes, there's no way to become fully aware of the pain of the past without changing our institutions and ourselves.

PICKETT: Baldwin is calling us into a future. Calling us into a higher self, a self that we might not, that we cannot imagine, that we have not imagined. That we've never thought we could actually become.

And the reading group found a strategy for action in the final words of the book.

PICKETT: Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.

MARGOLIS: If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others -- do not falter in our duty now,

PICKETT: we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.