My real name is not James Bell, but James Baldwin. Not a lot of people know that.
And I changed it for a number of reasons, but one reason was that there was someone who had already made that name famous, and I had no desire to try to compete for it. The other one, James Arthur Baldwin, was like my relatives Stanley Baldwin and Rudyard Kipling in the fact (and perhaps only alike in this fact) that when I was young I got the sense that grown-ups generally didn’t really approve of him, but I was never quite sure why. I feel I have a clearer picture on all of them now: Stanley Baldwin is still seen by many as being an appeaser to Hitler (don’t get my father started on this!), and Rudyard Kipling… well, read the poem White Man’s Burden if you want a jumping-off point for that debate. And my namesake? He just didn’t believe. He didn’t believe in the dream, that soon black children and white children would be joining hands together and singing in the spirituals of old: free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we are free at last.
When Barrack Obama became president of the United States, many people felt that James Baldwin had been proved wrong. When Donald Trump became the next president, many more people felt that James Baldwin had been proved right. And now I’m told his books are in the windows of bookshops all across the USA.
Part of this might be because of a recent documentary film about Mr Baldwin, called I Am Not Your Negro:
But another part might be because the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates once asked his agent why no one was writing like James Baldwin anymore? And his agent said: you are the person to try.
And the book he wrote is called Between The World And Me. It takes the form of a letter to his 15 year old son, and is part memoir, part journalism, part philosophy and part poetry. This book has gone on to top the New York Times’s best-seller list, and I could try to second-guess why but I think this video below will paint a better picture than I can:
In this discussion, Coates says that if you haven’t read Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, you’ve lost – you’ve lost big time. The title comes from the song Mary Don’t You Weep: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water but fire next time”
The thing that I find exhilarating about both Baldwin’s and Coates’s writing is that it feels like finally stumbling into the room where the conversation is happening. Where it’s no longer assumed that the crumbling of liberal democracy is some inexplicable tragedy that came out of nowhere.
For anyone that feels that maybe this, today, is the fire, if you haven’t read Coates I think you’ve lost big time.