Reading lists

Where to start with James Baldwin

The iconic American author, essayist, poet and playwright turned his life’s struggles into brilliant literary works, as relevant today as when they were written. Here’s a guide to his best books to start with, by the author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Today.

Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
A flatlay of some of James Baldwin's most notable works.
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem Hospital in New York City, James Baldwin grew up poor in the heart of the Great Depression, the oldest in a family of nine children – yet he would become one of America’s most significant and celebrated authors.

Throughout his lifetime as a novelist, essayist, poet and playwright, Baldwin brilliantly chronicled his tortuous relationship with his stepfather, his crisis of faith, his sexuality, and his intense desire to tell the stories that swirled around in his head. Baldwin left the United States in 1948 for Paris – “My luck was running out,” he archly asserted in a 1984 interview for The Paris Review; “I was going to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed” – where he became the poet who would fearlessly “describe us to ourselves as we are now”, as he put it. He willed himself into becoming one of the world’s most important writers and the most insightful critic of American democracy and race this country has ever produced.

Anyone interested in beginning a journey through Baldwin’s body of work will have to move across genres, but one can hear the distinctiveness of his voice in any form. Here are five suggested books that offer a wonderful point of entry to his writings and demonstrate his ongoing relevance to our troubled times.

This is Baldwin’s first book after the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. If The Fire Next Time was prophecy, No Name in the Street was the reckoning. Here, Baldwin offers a tragic assessment of the Black Freedom movement and an unsparing judgment of the nation’s betrayal of that movement. In many ways, the book is about the trauma of loss, the fragmentation of memory, and the desperate struggle to hold on to hope.

One cannot help but notice Baldwin’s anger in No Name; it drips from the page. His focus also shifts: unlike in Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seems less concerned about white America – they will have to save themselves. Instead, he writes to pick up the pieces and offer his readers reasons to continue to fight for what he calls elsewhere “a New Jerusalem”. 

The book innovates at the level of form. Baldwin writes without concern for the white gaze, mirroring trauma and fragmented memory in the very way he structures the book. Time folds back on itself; he repeatedly shifts between the past and present. Linear narrative is cast aside. Reading No Name in the Street today offers us resources to survive the latest American betrayal, and inspires us to imagine how we might begin again.

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