A James Baldwin Reading List
This weekend FringeArts and The Wilma Theater will present Notes of a Native Song, a rollicking “concert novel” from Stew and Heidi Rodewald as part of the 2016 Fringe Festival. Inspired by the art and life of writer and activist James Baldwin, Stew and Rodewald, along with their musically formidable band, utilize a mix of music, video, and spoken word as they explore and celebrate Baldwin’s lasting and complex legacy. More info and tickets can be found here.
“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for that reason I insist on the right to criticize her.”
James Baldwin said this in 1955 in Notes of a Native Son. This quotation resonates today. We are in a critical moment in America. I believe the criticism Baldwin calls us to do is shallow if it is entirely external. Baldwin’s words have fueled my vision and mission since I was first handed Go Tell It on The Mountain by my 9th grade English teacher. Baldwin is a voice that can give clarity and meaning to the beautiful struggle that is existence.
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
The power of this book is its achievement as a novel holding universal themes. I have never lived in Paris or the South of France, but I connected directly with the main character, David. David is white, as are all of the characters in Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin takes you on a journey into the world of France he observed. Baldwin took a bold step by presenting a gay love story between David and Giovanni to the world in the mid-twentieth century. Anyone who reads Giovanni’s Room feels as if the are walking next to each character and taking in every moment. It is a powerful and painful story. The book will make you take on a deep existential and introspective journey. You will be changed forever.
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
Baldwin takes us into the complex world of John Grimes. He is a young man trying to find his way in life. This search is the foundation of much of the Baldwin’s writings. The book is set in Harlem in 1935, with flashbacks to the days of slavery (which we must remember are not so far behind us). When we meet James Grimes, he is desperate for the love of his father. Themes of religion, race, and coming-of-age are all intertwined into the story. John’s need for his Father’s love reveals a story of an empty search that has complications beyond the son’s existence.
Another Country (1962)
Baldwin spent 13 years writing this book. When published Norman Mailer said the book was “abominably written.” New Orleans said it was obscene. Australia banned it. Another Country quickly became a best seller. This book, like many of Baldwin’s works, is multilayered. The story presents a cast of characters rooted in New York City with some connection to France. We witness them all do the dance of life as they work to come to terms with who they are, what they dream of, and what they will do. The book is full of music, sex, love, pain and, most importantly, intimacy. Baldwin gave us intersectionality before there was intersectionality with this tome. I have just completed my 11th read. I re-read all of James Baldwin’s novels. Once again I am surprised to discover even more about myself. That is often what happens when reading a Baldwin novel. I am excited for my 12th read.
The Fire Next Time (1963)
This is collection of essays is as relevant today as when it was first published. Within these essays, Baldwin challenges the reader to consider our roles in the so-called Race problem that is America’s problem. His first essay is addressed to his nephew. It is a great instruction and thought-provoking work for all of us. While it is geared towards his nephew, this essay and all the essays demand that we consider what is this world we have created and for which we are responsible. Baldwin’s words are not just conjecture. He carefully analyzes and explicates the moments of our time. It is shocking how germane his thinking from the mid-twentieth century is to current times.
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
This was Baldwin’s first non-fiction book. I wish I were alive to hear and see the response this must have caused in the world. The essays are bold and beautiful. The final essay in the book is called “The Black Boy Looks at The White Boy.” When I first read this in college, I was afraid of its brutal honesty. I hesitantly (?) wondered if I was as willing to be as free as Baldwin demanded I be. I have been on that peregrination ever since. I encourage you to read it and join me on this journey.
—André Robert Lee
André Robert Lee is a New York based filmmaker and producer. To learn more about his work check out his production company Many Things Management. His documentary, The Prep School Negro, chronicles his experience attending a prestigious Philadelphia prep school on scholarship and is available to stream at PBS. His clothing line, Government Cheese, recently launched.