Hans Lovejoy, editor
Happy birthday, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987).
As one of the more obscure figures who championed human rights, his activism spanned race, sexuality, and class, which contributed to major political movements of the ’60s.
Apart from his novels and plays, he is notable for simply being a superbly articulate public speaker.
Every word mattered, every phrase and pause was deeply considered and passionate, and it was coupled with a powerful subject matter; the real lived experience of being gay and black in a society that accepted neither.
His message is timeless, and of great importance where discourse and trust is collapsing, integrity is in retreat, and leadership vacuums are filled by shallow game show hosts.
From an impoverished childhood in Harlem, he overcame adversity by educating himself.
He said of books, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive’.
Baldwin eventually left for France, arriving penniless.
Yet he said of his native country, ‘I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticise her perpetually’.
Baldwin is perhaps best known for his debate with conservative William F Buckley in 1965 at the University of Cambridge. The topic was, ‘The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro’.
‘It comes as a great shock around the age of five, or six, or seven’. Baldwin declared during the debate, ‘to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you’.
After he spoke, he received a standing ovation.
Everything Baldwin spoke about decades ago relates to right now, with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement.