413 I Am Not Your Negro

iamnotyournegrobookby James Baldwin, edited by Raoul Peck, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro is Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary based on the writings of James Baldwin. In 1979, Baldwin began working on a book about America as told through the deaths of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The book was to be called Remember This House, but Baldwin never got past thirty pages of notes before his death in 1987. Twenty years later, Peck wrote to the Baldwin estate to ask for the rights to produce a film on the writer’s life and work. He wasn’t yet sure what form that film would take until Baldwin’s sister Gloria Karefa-Smart gave him the notes to her brother’s unfinished project, saying, “You’ll know what to do with these.” From this, Peck developed the idea to finish this book through the medium of film, with the three men and Baldwin serving as a means by which to tell the story of America.

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412 The Cross of Redemption

crossofredemptionby James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, 2010

As I’m nearing the end of the Baldwin catalog, I’ve reached the posthumously published works. The Cross of Redemption is a collection of Baldwin’s published writings that were previously uncollected in any one book. These include various essays, speeches, letters, forewords and afterwords to other books, book reviews, and even a piece of short fiction. While there are some real gems to be found here, the problem with a collection like this is that it treats Baldwin’s work as a cohesive whole. His previous collections of essays were curated, and they were meant to tell a story together. That’s not the case here. There’s no thread that ties all of these together, other than the fact that Baldwin wrote them and the editor has decided that each piece of his writing is of equal importance and must be read. It’s not for the casual Baldwin reader or someone looking for an introduction to his works. I’d only recommend it for those who are trying to read everything he’s written or who are embarking on some sort of research project. That said, I did enjoy encountering some of Baldwin’s typical knock-out writing in this volume.

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409 One Day When I Was Lost

onedaywheniwaslostby James Baldwin, 1972

It wasn’t until I did some research for my podcast episode about The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Spike Lee’s film that I learned that, while several writers attempted to write a script based on the book, Lee ultimately chose Baldwin’s effort on which to base his epic masterpiece. One Day When I Was Lost is the screenplay that was never realized on film. Baldwin chronicled some of the difficulties of writing for Hollywood in The Devil Finds Work, in which he relates that he was encouraged to increase the action sequences and learned that the script would be cut to emphasize entertainment. Baldwin abandoned the project, and his writing was produced only in book form until Lee decided to work from it in the early 90s. As such, the book bears strong resemblances to the resulting film. It doesn’t necessarily feel complete, but it is a clear stepping stone to what I consider to be the best movie I’ve ever seen.

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398 Blues for Mister Charlie

bluesformistercharlieby James Baldwin, 1964

Blues for Mister Charlie is Baldwin’s second play, and it’s one that draws inspiration from then-current events. In his author’s note, Baldwin explains that it is based on the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The murderers were known—the accuser’s husband and his half-brother—but were acquitted by an all-white jury of beating, mutilating, and shooting the boy. While we know now that Till’s accuser fabricated this claim, it was certainly suspected at the time, and Baldwin gives credence to these suspicions in a story that centers around the killing of a young black man accused by a white woman of grabbing her. His murderer also goes free, the court justifying his actions of both killing an innocent man and lying on the stand when questioned about it. 

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396 Nothing Personal

nothingpersonalby James Baldwin, 1964

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.”

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395 The Amen Corner

amencornerby James Baldwin, 1954

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.

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393 The Evidence of Things Not Seen

evidenceofthingsnotseenby James Baldwin, 1985

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.

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392 Jimmy’s Blues

jimmysblues (1)by James Baldwin, 1983

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.

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388 Just Above My Head

justabovemyheadby James Baldwin, 1978

In his final novel, James Baldwin tells the sprawling tale of gospel singer Arthur Montana through the eyes of his older brother Hall. As the book begins, Arthur has been dead for two years. Hall remembers that he had been found in a pool of blood in the basement of a pub in London. The death still weighs heavily on Hall, who is never quite sure how it happened. In the present day, Hall and his wife and two children are preparing to go to a barbecue at his old friend Julia’s house. This offers Hall’s son the opportunity to ask about his uncle, namely, whether the rumors that he was gay are true. Hall explains that his brother slept with a lot of people in his life, mostly men, but that he was always proud of him. So begins the portrait of young man growing up black and gay in a country where neither of those identities was deemed acceptable.

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385 The Devil Finds Work

devilfindsworkby James Baldwin, 1976

In this short volume, Baldwin presents three essays centered around film and the black experience. They are as scathing as any of his non-fiction work, showing how the systemic oppression of the country is inescapable in both daily life and in the fantastical world of movies. Nothing escapes Baldwin’s powerful perception as he deconstructs the societal institutions that are reproduced on the screen. I haven’t seen all of the films that Baldwin critiques here, but his forceful and eloquent remarks had me writing down titles to add to my to-watch list in effort to better understand the culture that perpetuates these harmful systems.

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