At a time when Black Americans were being silenced, oppressed and persecuted, American author and poet James Baldwin emerged as one of the most important voices in history. The Harlem-born essayist found a way to beautifully articulate the consequences that would soon follow if this society failed to address its growing imperfections.
Throughout those same bodies of work, he would bring attention to personal conflicts, writing about his struggles with sexuality and religion, in addition to other troubles. In the same manner some Black Americans see prolific activists as influential to their political ideologies, Baldwin revolutionized literature at a time when this country was undergoing a major and necessary overhaul.
The limit does not exist when it comes to the phenomenal impact Baldwin had during his 63 years on earth, but the following five projects might be considered some of his finest pieces of work:
1. If Beale Street Could Talk
Published in 1974, If Beale Street Could Talk tells the fictional story of Tish Rivers and Fonny Hunt, young, Black parents-to-be in Harlem who face an unprecedented amount of tribulations. After Fonny is falsely accused of rape, the book follows their probe to find an attorney and free Fonny before their child arrives. A film adaption of the novel was released nationwide in December 2018, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for Regina King, who played Tish’s mother, Sharon.
2. Go Tell It On The Mountain
Originally published in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain was Baldwin’s first major project and details the harrowing tale of a teenage boy coming to terms with his sexuality. The protagonist John Grimes is the stepson of an abusive Pentecostal pastor during the Depression, which mirrors Baldwin’s own life growing up with a Baptist preacher for a stepfather who possessed similar qualities.
3. Notes of a Native Son
A collection of 10 works in one, Baldwin wrote Notes of a Native Son in his early twenties. Though composed in the 1940s and 1950s, the overarching theme depicting the complicated plight of being Black in America still holds relevance today. Baldwin’s criticism of race disparities and political violence cemented the activist as one of the leading minds of the civil rights movement and the fight for Black liberation.
4. Another Country
The 1962 novel is set in Greenwich and Harlem, New York and Paris, France. A fascinating exploration into sexual, cultural and political emotions, it’s loaded with plenty of truths about Black individuals feeling exhausted due to the ongoing systemic racism, hatred and alienation. It’s raw, eye-opening and a must-read for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how race and class impacts socio-economic structures and relationship.
5. Giovanni's Room
At the age of 24, Baldwin relocated from the United State to Paris out of frustration for the maltreatment of Black Americans. Giovanni’s Room illustrates the narrator David’s experience into queerness and the first time he felt another man’s body close to his. After he and his fiancée relocate to Paris, David meets and falls in love with titular character Giovanni, an Italian bartender. The rest of the book portrays David’s strife between remaining faithful to his partner while also grappling with his sexual identity.
With heavy themes of love, shame, race and identity prevalent in each of the aforementioned titles, Baldwin has the incredible ability to fuse various concepts together and compel the reader to combat their own preconceived notions. The candid manner in which he describes America’s obsession with race, his personal contempt with normalcy and other observations make him one of the most prolific literary minds of the 20th century.