Return of the Prophet: Baldwin in the 21st Century

James Baldwin was the prophetic voice of an era that isn’t over. Fifty years ago, he was a young, bug-eyed man from Harlem who wrote, in essays and novels, his own version of the civil-rights movement. Now his words have become the rallying cries for a new rising generation—in film, in music, and in the press.

Raoul Peck, the Haitian-born director of the Oscar-nominated Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, sees Baldwin as a mirror on American life:

He went really deep into what the society is, you know, and he was the only one who was able to formulate it in a way that a scholar of course would understand it but also the man in the streets would understand it in a way where he could be very critical to the white liberal but without pushing them away. But he found a way to put every one of us, whether black or white, in front of the reality. He put a mirror in front of us in a way that you can’t look away.

Teju Cole views the Baldwin of today as a master aphorist: a pithy prophet well-suited to the twitter age and “the go-to quote factory of those who are woke”. On a deeper level, Cole finds kinship in Baldwin’s transnational sense of self.  Cole guides us through his own pilgrimage to Leukerbad, Switzerland—the remote town where Baldwin composed his seminal essay “Stranger in the Village”:

The essay I ended up writing about this journey to Leukerbad became also a kind of exercise in Baldwinian form … I deeply love the essay that he wrote about being there, and in my essay, which I call “Black Body,” I wanted to think about what it meant to inhabit somebody else’s space. I was inhabiting his space and, in a sense in the essay, I was inhabiting his prose style. … it was conscious to allow that to happen, to allow the visceral effect of being there as he was there, walking the streets as he walked the streets, to let all of that come through and still have it be analytical.

Cornel West reminds us of Baldwin’s unpopularity, and his nagging truth-telling habit that alienated him, in later years, from the white liberal media professional who first popularized his work, as well as from the radical black nationalists. But for Brother West, this outsider truth-teller “was really a kind of Democratic saint, if you define a saint as a sinner who looks at the world through the lens of the heart.”

“He was heartbroken.” Cornel says, “America broke his heart, day in and day out.”

And Ed Pavlic, author of Who Can Afford to Improvise?: James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listener, hears in Baldwin’s words echoes of the black musicians Baldwin dearly loved – Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson et al. Above all else though, Pavlic reminds us of Baldwin’s deep love for Ray Charles, highlighting the concert Baldwin and Charles organized together at Carnegie Hall as part of the 1973 Newport Folk Festival.


Illustrations by Susan Coyne. This program was originally broadcast February 2017.



Guest List
Raoul Peck
director of the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro 
Teju Cole
writer, art historian, and photography critics for New York Times Magazine
Cornel West
preacher, philosopher, and author of Black Prophetic Fire.

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  • Pete Crangle

    This one blew my hair back. How is it that these shows keep improving? Chris, you’re doing truly amazing work. and it gets better and better. And of course, the guests are superb. A perfect discussion for this moment. James Baldwin is a skylight for our era stuck in the misanthropic bunker. I look forward to seeing this film.

    Superb music choices throughout. I would add the following twentieth century masterpiece: Charles Mingus “Fables of Faubus”

  • Bryon

    Chris: Please keep Ed Pavlic on you go-to list; singularly impressive!

  • Potter

    The music helps us rise and move along. Ray Charles.

    I mention Nina Simone here too…she connected with Baldwin. She had the same sense of indignation that for me stood out about Baldwin so much. I know Cornel West talks about the love. I love Cornel West especially lately. He also came across in the past as indignant, or angry. But less so now…from him I do feel the love. Cornel West can get very intellectual about things, but he is very worth the trip. So too of course, or maybe better, the trip from James Baldwin. He had a right to be angry and hurt. This is what I got from him when I listened to him: anger and hurt. He said,I had a problem. He was right.. even when I knew I was not personally hurting him ( or I did not think so) we were where we were at from a long train of misguidance and indulgence in our lower natures. I grew up in the New York City of the late 40’s 50’s and early 60’s. But Baldwin made you listen (or made me) and it ended up he came out of his soliloquey with great dignity. That is what he was about for me.

    I don’t know where we would be without the Blues, or black music. Poorer by a lot. And yet it was the suffering that we white people imposed upon black people that was the cause. This is a funny world.

    I am wondering out aloud if the title of the movie would have been “I am not your…N-word” and then was softened to Negro. Too shocking still?

    This is a very beautiful ROS program. Thank you.

    • Potter

      PS.. I am really loving Susan Coyle’s colored drawings!

  • Billy McBride

    I am thrilled that I was able to listen to Dr.Cornell West on your show to speak about James Baldwin. Keep up the great shows and interviews!

  • Mike

    I need the name of the song playing at around 9 minutes?

  • dugla

    Chris Lydon simply has no equal when it comes to presenting dense, nuanced subjects in a subtle yet carefully crafted compelling package. This Jimmy Baldwin piece is a shining example. Just brilliant, sir.