James Baldwin Among the Philosophers

Exhibit Location: The Joseph Regenstein Library, Fourth Floor
Exhibit Dates: September 25 – December 31, 2017

James Baldwin at Civil Rights March on Washington

James Baldwin at Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963 via Wikipedia Commons

“Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” James Baldwin wrote these words for his nephew, and namesake, as the open letter “My Dungeon Shook,” originally published in The Progressive and later as an introduction to his book The Fire Next Time (Dial Press, 1963). The book was one of the best sellers of 1963 and earned him the cover of Time Magazine.

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. He became a minister at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly at age 14. During his teenage years, Baldwin started writing seriously. By the end of high school, he had started to question the role of the church in the African-American community, while growing more appreciative of the arts and aware of his queerness. He stopped preaching in 1941 at 17 and by 1944 was living in the artist community of Greenwich Village, with his roommate and lifelong friend Marlon Brando. Baldwin rose to prominence after the publication of his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood. By the 1960s, Baldwin had become the most recognizable African-American writer in the U.S. and the de facto spokesperson for the Civil Right Movement, a title he opposed. In 1971, Baldwin moved to France. He continued to write and visited the U.S. to teach at Bowling Green University and the University of California, Berkeley. By the time of his death on December 1, 1987, James Baldwin had published over 25 works, including novels, plays, poems and essay collections.

Baldwin’s house in Saint Paul de Vence, France in 2009

The house where James Baldwin lived and died in Saint Paul de Vence, France (image taken July 2009) via Wikipedia Commons

James Baldwin’s work is widely recognized for its religious overtones and influences as well as for its critiques of racism and heterosexual norms. His work is equally important as a contribution to American philosophy. Cornel West dubbed Baldwin a “Black American Socrates” since he “infect[ed] others with the same perplexity he himself felt and grappled with: the perplexity of trying to be a decent human being and thinking person in the face of the pervasive mendacity and hypocrisy of the American empire.” (Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism [New York: Penguin, 2004] 80) This two-case exhibit displays books and essays by James Baldwin, alongside philosophical works that engage his work.

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