He was the gadfly of the Black Revolution: an angry, incessant entity with weirdly bulging eyes and a wickedly pointed tongue, who for more than three decades tormented the American conscience with the exquisite sting of truth. Tiny, fidgety, chain-smoking, theatrically effeminate, James Baldwin fought fiercely for his people with the weapon of his choice: the written word. In four collections of passionately eloquent essays (Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time) and half a dozen powerful, disorderly novels (Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country), he mounted the racial barricades and addressed both sides of the color line—always with biblical fervor, often with analytical precision, sometimes with rasping irony.
Most of his mockery was directed at whites. “Segregation has worked brilliantly,” he gibed. “It has allowed white people, with scarcely any pangs of conscience whatever, to create only the negro they wished to see….”
Yet he found no humor in the basic facts of interracial life: “No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos….”
To blacks he offered dry but nourishing crusts of hope: “What white people say about you, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. There is no reason to become like white people and no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing is that you must accept them and accept them with love. It will be hard, but you come from men who, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
The odds against Baldwin were terrifying indeed. He was born in Harlem, the eldest son of a fanatical preacher driven half mad by the daily impossibility of feeding his nine children. At 14, to escape a life of street crime and “to best my father on his own ground,” the boy set up as a revivalist preacher, and for three years he soared on the wings of the Word like an adolescent archangel. But at 17, weary of sectarian squabbles, he abandoned the Word for the word and became a writer—a formidably precocious one. At 20, without benefit of college, he was writing for the Nation and the New Leader. At 24, hoping to orbit out of the “self-destroying limbo” of racism, he took off for Paris, where he scraped by on grants and odd jobs until Go Tell It on the Mountain, a 1953 novel about growing up in Harlem, made him well-off and well-known.
With that book Baldwin began his true ministry. It ended on Dec. 1 in St. Paul de Vence, France, where he died at 63, of stomach cancer. Last week in New York, several thousand people attended a memorial service at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. The man they came to honor was the Apostle to the Prejudiced, and his truth goes marching on.