Dec. 1 marked the death in 1987 of one of America’ greatest thinkers, James Baldwin.

For those who are not familiar with Baldwin, he was a novelist, playwright and social activist. His mastery of the English language and his penetrating social analysis captured the imagination of millions.

Three Baldwin essays/books that are must reads are “The Fire Next Time,” “Giovanni’s Room” and “Notes of A Native Son.”

His commentary on American life is just as pertinent today as it was at the time of his death.

Baldwin forced us to examine the interconnection of race, gender and class. A man who bore the double crucible of being black and gay, Baldwin understood how these three social phenomena affected life in America.

In response to America’s desire to have fruitless polite conversation regarding race, class and gender, Baldwin wrote, “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Baldwin was keenly aware of how America’s call for gradualism contributed greatly to the perpetuation of racism, classism and homophobia.

Baldwin, with others such as King, Malcolm, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker, realized that the call for gradual social change was a call for no change at all. Baldwin realized that a system that denies my right to exist and my humanity must be confronted and changed immediately and that the sentiment of gradualism was an appeal to death for people of color, the queer community and the poor.

Baldwin’s debate with William F. Buckley demonstrates Baldwin’s clarity of thought and the dual nature of systemic racism in America.

Buckley’s staunch opposition to “integration” and support of white supremacy is haunting. While Buckley’s rhetoric is representative of conservatism both then and now, Baldwin was also aware of white liberal racism that sees itself as the savior of black people.

By participating in the 1963 March on Washington, Baldwin saw how white liberals would support a narrative that made them feel good about themselves but reject the notion of black power.

Why? Because the call for black power threatened white privilege, a privilege that white conservatives and white liberals share.

There are several good, informative books available in the contemporary market. However, sometimes I think we are so fascinated by what is “new” that we forget the wisdom contained in “the old.”

One day while returning to Columbia by plane, a young black man noticed that I was reading “The Fire Next Time.” He said to me, “Wow, it is nice to see a brother reading old books.”

I smiled without comment. But I thought to myself maybe part of the reason our social progress as black people has not gone further is because we have discounted old thoughts and old wisdom.

We no longer listen to Frederick Douglass or Marcus Garvey. We have forgotten womanists like Alice Walker. We ignore black, gay geniuses like Baldwin and Langston Hughes.

Perhaps that is why so much of contemporary social justice speech is superficial and pale.

I encourage you to read some of Baldwin’s work. I invite you to see “I Am Not Your Negro.” It will enliven your spirit and resolve to declare your humanity and your right to exist.

The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr. was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at MU. He teaches at Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College and writes for the Missourian.


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