In 1964, Baldwin collaborated with the photographer Richard Avedon to produce a collection of photographs underscored by Baldwin’s prose. That essay has since been republished as a stand-alone work, allowing the focus to be entirely on Baldwin’s critique of the problems plaguing America. As is often the case, his words seem to reach out from beyond the years to describe us as we are today. Although only about 50 pages, the essay is a grand introduction to Baldwin’s most frequently visited topic: the problem of race in the supposed “land of the free.”
James Baldwin’s stepfather was a Baptist preacher, and when Baldwin was a teenager, he, too, felt called to preach. However, his work with the church was short-lived, as he quickly came to see it was steeped in racism and hypocrisy. This disillusionment is one of the main points of focus of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and it resurfaces here in his first play, published shortly thereafter. The Amen Corner centers on Margaret Alexander, the pastor of a church in Harlem. Her sister Odessa, 18-year-old son David, and estranged husband Luke also factor into the story. When Luke returns to Margaret’s life, she soon learns that the church she has so lovingly devoted her time to is not the fount of unwavering support she believed it to be.
In a bizarre twist of history, evolution has begun proceeding backwards. We don’t know why this is happening, nor do the characters; all we know is that plants have started growing wilder and leafier, animals resembling their ancestral forebears hunt the land, and women have started giving birth to pre-Homo sapien babies. The result of this is pregnant women are put on high watch, required to “voluntarily” turn themselves in to be monitored until they give birth or be turned in against their wills. Cedar Hawk Songmaker, our protagonist, is four months pregnant, and this book is the letter she writes to her unborn child as she struggles to stay free and alive.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen is, in some respects, a true-crime book, and in other respects, a continuation of Baldwin’s preferred subject of the problem of race in America. While Baldwin was living in France, he was contacted with the suggestion of going to Atlanta to write about children who had gone missing there. The children would eventually turn up murdered, and Wayne Williams would be convicted of killing two adults men, though he would be seemingly tried for 23 of the child murders. This short book isn’t an investigation into the crimes, but an examination of the justice system and the opportunity to cast doubt on the trial that took place. Baldwin doesn’t necessarily advocate for the complete innocence of Williams, but rather questions the city’s eagerness to attribute the murders of all of these black children to one man, who is also black. That doubt is enough to make the reader wonder what really happened within the minds of the jurors and whether any justice was done in this trial.
Why is James Baldwin good at everything??? I was a little skeptical coming into this poetry collection, partially because I don’t tend to love poetry and partially because I had my doubts that this writer who gained fame based on his essays and novels could take those same ideas and translate them to verse. But, he did, and I’m just as floored as I ever am when I read one of Baldwin’s many stirring works.
The pandemic story has always been one of my favorite types of apocalyptic/dystopian tales, but when I found myself living through it, it was much harder to enjoy and I shied away from all stories that leaned in that direction. Now that we’re somewhat seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, at least in the US and, hopefully, soon in the rest of the world, I’ve been able to pick up books with this plotline once again without turning into a ball of stress and anxiety. Sweet Tooth is one of those books. When I found out that the new Netflix show was based on a series of graphic novels, I, naturally, had to get my hands on them. I’m always a read-the-book-first kind of person, at least when I’m aware there is a book to be read first.
While I’ve been a fan of science-fiction since I was a teenager, I was always wary of Dune. It didn’t seem like my style, with the imagining of entirely different worlds, cultures, and languages. In fact, the phrase “world-building” is one of the descriptors that most turns me off of a novel, and it’s what keeps me from reading high fantasy. (I will still never read The Lord of the Rings.) I can’t say exactly what it is that puts me off this element of fiction any more than I can say why the phrases “post-apocalyptic dystopia” or “multi-generational family saga” immediately hook me. They just do. Still I felt that if I were to be a true science-fiction fan, I’d need to read the granddaddy of them all, especially with the new movie coming out. Now that I’ve done it, I have just one question: Who keeps calling this pile of high fantasy science-fiction???!?
When this task for the challenge came up, all I knew was that I didn’t want to read a political memoir or biography. I just wasn’t in the mood to read something about war or socio-political strife (which ended up being good intuition, given my choice to read James Baldwin’s catalog for the year). Thanks to the GoodReads thread for the challenge, I came across this book about joy by who I would certainly call two of the most prominent world leaders of today. I’m so glad I did, as this was exactly the sort of meditation on how to be when everything just seems too much. It may go down as one of my favorite reads of the year.