James Baldwin: in profile
James Baldwin was a gay black American writer known for his novels, essays, plays and poems; he was also active in America’s civil rights movement. His two best-known works are his novel Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), voted one of the best English language novels of the 20th century, and his essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955).
An unfinished manuscript of his became the Oscar-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro (2016). He died in France aged 63.
When did you first hear about James Baldwin?
While doing my A-levels, although my studies were focused on the classics. I was very interested at the time in America’s civil rights movement, as well as hip-hop bands like Public Enemy. Then I came across some of Baldwin’s work in the library and his pro-black writing just blew me away.
What kind of man was he?
He was brought up in the church but was not afraid to shout from the rooftops about being black and gay. He was a highly intelligent man but at the same time had enormous empathy for others. Moreover, he was all too aware of the power of his words and their ability to motivate people, and he used them to do just that.
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What made Baldwin a hero?
The way that this black gay man wrote so positively about his colour, a provocative thing to do in the 1950s. This was a very different time, when it was dangerous to be so outspoken about America’s treatment of black people. He argued that all the things that white people hated were things that we should love about ourselves. His outspokenness helped give black people pride in the colour of their skin, and encouraged others – such as Nina Simone, who wrote the song To Be Young, Gifted and Black – to speak out. He would have been so proud to see people like Serena Williams and Tiger Woods excel in tennis and golf, which weren’t supposed to be “black” sports.
What was his finest hour?
For me, it is the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which is so powerful, and a great entry point for those wishing to know more about Baldwin. It sums up just how unfair life was for a black man in the America of his day, and how illogical it was to hate someone for the colour of their skin; he highlights the sheer stupidity of racism. Literature-wise, it has to be his novels Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room – he’s such a beautiful writer.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
Like him, I’ve experienced racism, and people telling me I couldn’t work in certain genres because of my colour. But his writing gave me the strength to overcome such prejudice – for instance, I was the first black person to appear in the West End show Beauty and the Beast – and be honest about my blackness.
What would you ask Baldwin if you could meet him?
I’d ask him about his creative process and how he freed himself up to be so honest in his writing. I’d also ask what gave him the courage to be so honest.
Michelle Gayle is a singer, songwriter, author, actor and co-founder of the World Reimagined arts programme, which aims to transform understanding of the transatlantic slave trade