The American poet and essayist was born 92 years ago today in Harlem. His insights on city life are as incisive as ever.
James Baldwin has been seen as a prophet, as a suspect, as the greatest American essayist in history. He was also a sharp examiner of the urban environment. He captured the rhythms of city life, the character and habits and various circumstances of their inhabitants, as well as he captured the broader character of cultures, populations, and institutions. His descriptions of Paris, where he lived and wrote for many years, range from the comfort of cafes to the institutional violence and absurd bureaucracy of a Parisian jail.
He’d gone to Paris seeking freedom from American racism, and the removal he found there, the foreignness, allowed him to turn a clear eye to the streets of his own country. Now, on what would be his 92nd birthday, his insights on city life are as incisive as ever.
His writings on New York City, and especially on his birthplace of Harlem, are marked by vividness and specificity. They map the physical space of the city, laying out the streets and buildings and vacant lots, as thoroughly and unflinchingly as they interrogate and map the motives of their residents. By noting and locating the stoned man on the stoop, the shopkeeper in the window, the Boy’s Club on West 134th Street, he grounded his explorations of black life and human experience. Cities in his writing are microcosms of empires and macrocosms—in their cruelty, woundedness, beauty, and contradiction—of the human spirit. “Walk through the streets of Harlem,” Baldwin wrote in 1960, “and see what we, this nation, have become.”
A few of Baldwin’s most place-based essays are available online, and well worth a read today:
“Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” Esquire, 1960
There is a housing project standing now where the house in which we grew up once stood, and one of those stunted city trees is snarling where our doorway used to be. This is on the rehabilitated side of the avenue. The other side of the avenue — for progress takes time — has not been rehabilitated yet and it looks exactly as it looked in the days when we sat with our noses pressed against the windowpane, longing to be allowed to go "across the street." The grocery store which gave us credit is still there, and there can be no doubt that it is still giving credit. The people in the project certainly need it — far more, indeed, than they ever needed the project. The last time I passed by, the Jewish proprietor was still standing among his shelves, looking sadder and heavier but scarcely any older. Further down the block stands the shoe-repair store in which our shoes were repaired until reparation became impossible and in which, then, we bought all our "new" ones. The Negro proprietor is still in the window, head down, working at the leather.
“Equal in Paris,” Notes of a Native Son, 1955
The moment I began living in French hotels I understood the necessity of French cafes.
The very word “institutions,” from my side of the ocean, where, it seemed to me, we suffered so cruelly from the lack of them, had a pleasant ring, as of safety and order and common sense; one had to come in contact with these institutions in order to understand that they were also outmoded, exasperating, completely impersonal, and very often cruel.
“Stranger in the Village,” Notes of a Native Son, 1955
From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came. I was told before arriving that I would probably be a "sight" for the village; I took this to mean that people of my complexion were rarely seen in Switzerland, and also that city people are always something of a "sight" outside of the city. It did not occur to me—possibly because I am an American—that there could be people anywhere who had never seen a Negro.
It is a fact that cannot be explained on the basis of the inaccessibility of the village. The village is very high, but it is only four hours from Milan and three hours from Lausanne. It is true that it is virtually unknown. Few people making plans for a holiday would elect to come here. On the other hand, the villagers are able, presumably, to come and go as they please - which they do: to another town at the foot of the mountain, with a population of approximately five thousand, the nearest place to see a movie or go to the bank. In the village there is no movie house, no bank, no library, no theater; very few radios, one jeep, one station wagon; and at the moment, one typewriter, mine, an invention which the woman next door to me here had never seen.
“The Harlem Ghetto,” Commentary, 1948
Harlem, physically at least, has changed very little in my parents’ lifetime or in mine. Now as then the buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty, there are too many human beings per square block. Rents are 10 to 58 per cent higher than anywhere else in the city; food, expensive everywhere, is more expensive here and of an inferior quality; and now that the war is over and money is dwindling, clothes are carefully shopped for and seldom bought. Negroes, traditionally the last to be hired and the first to be fired, are finding jobs harder to get, and, while prices are rising implacably, wages are going down. All over Harlem now there is felt the same bitter expectancy with which, in my childhood, we awaited winter: it is coming and it will be hard, there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Now Baldwin’s Paris has changed; his Harlem, some say, has ended. The worlds he described no longer exist as they did, but the social and economic relations that created them do, and his observations are as true and revelatory as they always have been.