Is James Baldwin America's Greatest Essayist?

Baldwin's genius increases as we grow older.

I picked up James Baldwin's new collected joint and haven't quite been the same since. I read a lot of Baldwin in college, and basically left with the sense that he was a badass. But I hadn't gone back to Baldwin in many years. Some people who are important to us as young people, wither under our gaze as older adults. And then other people who we know as genius somehow just increase in our estimation. 

Baldwin is among those people for me. This is not news. You can see him here giving Bill Buckley exactly what he deserves. And smarter people then me can tell you about his genius. What I can say is that this weekend I read his essay "Price of the Ticket" and felt like someone out there—long dead—understood how I felt.

Here is passage from "Price of the Ticket" in which Baldwin reflects on the mentoring he got from Marion Anderson and Beauford Delaney:

Because of her color, Miss Anderson was not allowed to sing at The Met, nor, as far as The Daughters of The American Revolution were concerned, anywhere in Washington where white people might risk hearing her. Eleanor Roosevelt was appalled by this species of patriotism and arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was a quite marvellous and passionate event in those years, triggered by the indignation of one woman who had, clearly, it seemed to me, married beneath her.

By this time, I was working for the Army—or the Yankee dollar!—in New Jersey. I hitchhiked, in sub-zero weather, out of what I will always remember as one of the lowest and most obscene circles of Hell, into Manhattan: where both Beauford and Miss Anderson where on hand to inform me that I had no right to permit myself to be defined by so pitiful a people. Not only was I not born to be a slave: I was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave-master. They had, the masters, incontestably, the rope—in time, with enough, they would hang themselves with it. They were not to hang me: I was to see to that. If Beauford and Miss Anderson were a part of my inheritance, I was a part of their hope.

Much of Baldwin's writing is roughly contemporaneous with the Civil Rights movement, but he seems to share none of its hope, none of its belief in the power of love to conquer all. There is something so real about him. He is not a nationalist, but a humanist—and yet he is the most clear-headed humanist I've ever read. He is not here to flatter you. He is not here to make white people better. He is not here to change the world. He doesn't even seem like he's trying to "inspire." He is here to write—because it's what he wants to do. I love that, and I feel it on so many levels.

I'm often asked what "impact" I hope my writing has. To which I can only respond, "Fuck if I know." I write because I want to, because I can do nothing else. Because I believe they will hang themselves, and this is my attempt to prevent them from hanging me.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In