Photo credits: The Associated Press
Harlem, New York is a U.S. municipality, which is and has been the hometown of some of Black America’s greatest cultural figures of all time.
When discussing greatness in the political realm, the arts, literature, sports, and even the controversial triumphs of the underworld, Harlem is identified as a historical producer of legendary trailblazers and gatekeepers. The land of this nation’s highly-lauded “Harlem Renaissance” is also the birthplace of a black man who I personally believe was and still is the greatest American-born writer of all time: The late but still great Mr. James Baldwin.
Baldwin’s life began on August 2, 1924. The world-renowned Harlemite was a legendary essayist, playwright, novelist, debater, and philosopher. Baldwin’s impeccable work as a craftsman in all his trades rocketed him to prominence in a way that was unparalleled. His words and voice opened the floodgates for the necessary fury, which spawned the American Civil Rights Movement throughout the 20th century and beyond.
In the early days of what would ultimately become a lightning rod career, Baldwin’s essays and short stories were introduced to the world after they were published in periodicals. The Nation, Partisan Review, and Commentary were three of the first periodicals that published Baldwin’s early writings, according to Biography.com.
However, after Baldwin arrived in Paris, France on an academic fellowship as a young man, he transformed himself into a more radical wordsmith. It was in Paris where Baldwin began to produce published writings, which were more reflective of his raw experiences as a black man in America; public enemy number one in the eyes of a white supremacist establishment. I learned about James Baldwin’s life and legacy in the late 1980s as a small elementary school boy.
His life was chronicled honorably in one of the Encyclopedia Britannica volumes that were available in my family home. My mother, in particular, made sure that my childhood education in public schools was supplemented with a powerful curriculum of Black America’s history at home. Reading Baldwin’s book Jimmy’s Blues: Selected Poems while still in elementary school played a major role in shaping me into the poet I am today.
However, the well-crafted “furious eloquence” title, which writer Tony Norman used, to sum up, Baldwin’s literary legacy also describes another component of the G.O.A.T’s (Greatest of All Time) genius.
Later in my life, I was finally able to see Baldwin’s masterful performance as a debater. Witnessing his exalted 1965 debate against author William F. Buckley, Jr. compelled me to crown Balwin with the G.O.A.T title. Buckley was certainly Goliath to Baldwin’s David. Buckley was and still is highly-revered by white conservative America. His iconic status as an intellectual stalwart vicariously lives through all elements of polished conservatism inside the dominant culture in today’s America.
However, the experience, establishment power, and formidable polish of Buckley was no match for the searing flames of sobering sophistication unleashed by Baldwin.
“I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing,” he quipped metaphorically.
“The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors. Why is my freedom or my citizenship, or my right to live there, how is it conceivably a question now? No one can be dismissed as a total monster,” Baldwin also said.
One may ask me, “What makes you give Baldwin the G.O.A.T title?” That same person might go further by presenting their opinions about Baldwin’s personal imperfections from a professional view. Someone else may even attempt to throw in their take on the rumored homosexual lifestyle that Baldwin was accused of living. However, no rumor or human imperfection has any bearing on my spiritual analysis of the craft.
My experiences as a writer have shown me the greats who were good at penning the script but not good at publicly speaking the drift. Baldwin mastered both and won against Buckley, someone Baldwin’s adversaries considered to be the best. That is not only my opinion. History itself has consistently declared Balwin as the winner for decades.
The great James Baldwin died in 1987, a month after I turned six-years-old. However, if blessed with enough years, I will provide my grandchildren with the same Black American history curriculum that was taught to me as a child in the late 1980s. My reverence of Baldwin’s name will be synonymous with such a duty.
His legacy will always behoove Black America’s obligations to our children for the purpose of building their honor in our people.