A Celebration of James Baldwin Through His Favorite Records

Join me in celebrating incredible wordsmith, activist, and all-around captivating human being, James Baldwin, on what would have been his 98th birthday.

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James Baldwin is an individual who, in many ways, transcends words. I have long admired him as an author and revered him as a human being, but found it implausible to try and define him. It feels wrong to reduce someone of such profound influence and historical importance to a couple of biographical bullet points. To truly celebrate Baldwin, I thought it best to tap into the spirit of his personality and passions, the places that shaped him, and the music that filled his heart and home.

In the hope of doing all three on what would have been his 98th birthday, let’s explore Baldwin’s record collection, inspiring legacy, and the country home he lived in for the last 17 years of his life.

Chez Baldwin

La Maison Baldwin, founded in 2016, is a French nonprofit dedicated to preserving the legacy of Baldwin’s time in Saint-Paul de Vence. Their work includes preservation efforts of his French estate – a portion of which involved photographs of his record collection.

Upon coming across this archive of Baldwin’s records, curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles compiled them to compose a dreamy Spotify playlist. Paying homage to where the records found their home, the playlist is befittingly titled “Chez Baldwin” and totals a staggering 522 tracks.

If you take a gander, scrolling through the array of records, you’ll see a couple of key favorites dominating the list. Most notable is the music of Gloria Lynne, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, Ray Charles, and Nina Simone. The latter was a good friend of Baldwin’s and one of many prominent black artists he entertained in his Saint-Paul de Vence home.

Expanding upon the lure of Baldwin’s records as an insight into his life in France, curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi comments:

“I guess I wanted to feel amongst those boisterous and tender convos when guests like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder (both featured in the playlist), Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, amongst others, broke bread and debated with a loving hold and care that isn’t always common when one is in the throes of trying to find themselves as Baldwin was during this ‘late style’ writing period,” 

Onyewuenyi in Hyperallergic interview

Surely, the ambiance of this record collection is a powerful insight and tether to the creative hub of Baldwin’s home/workspace. Though Baldwin’s jazz-filled abode often made for a social atmosphere, it was simultaneously an isolated escape by which he could write. Attached to his typewriter, Baldwin churned out a multitude of works during his years living in Saint-Paul de Vence. The writing process of which was not an entirely easy or pleasant task for Baldwin, who channeled the raw beauty and terror of humanity in all his work. In fact, as Onyewuenyi points out, “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.'”

I think many of us can agree that a great soundtrack can help inspire one’s writing and perhaps assist in breaking through a bout of writer’s block. In Baldwin’s case, his beloved music collection served an even deeper purpose as this assuaging, tempering agent by which he could endure the emotionally taxing and consuming act of writing.

Hence, this public playlist is a moving, personal tie to one of the most enduring authors of the 20th century and his persevering efforts to trek through the weight of the world’s injustice to write lucidly about humanity, change, and freedom.

James Baldwin - Paris home
Baldwin’s Home In Saint-Paul de Vence – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Baldwin’s Legacy

Though Harlem was his birthplace and a formative childhood home, Baldwin’s extensive period of time living in France cemented a second home for the author and activist. Upon arriving in Paris in 1948, not speaking a word of French, Baldwin eventually became fluent in the language. (A 1972 French interview can be seen here).

Upon his move to Europe, Baldwin wrote one of his most stunning novels, Giovanni’s Room, set in Paris. Flash forward a couple of decades; after a string of continued literary successes that launched him to international notoriety, Baldwin was tackling several projects in 1987 when he passed away from stomach cancer. One such project was a working memoir on three assassinated civil rights leaders he had known back in the States. The working title for the manuscript, Remember This House, became the basis for the incredible 2017 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.

This fairly recent development of Baldwin’s final written works testifies to how ahead of his time he truly was. His life-long commentary and critical analysis of race, class, religion, sexuality, and more made for searing novels and essays that remain vital to modern-day discourse on social equality.

Image via Pinterest

It is, quite frankly, impossible to overstate the impact of Baldwin’s legacy and the necessity of his message today. He had an incomparable talent for digging deep beyond the superficial surface of the world and writing about the heart of human troubles – from loss to love, from joy to sorrow.

Best yet, in Baldwin’s literary legacy, there is always hope and inspiration to be found. His work prods readers into a greater state of self-reflection by which we can better empathize, listen, and connect with one another. In other words, he elevates humanity as a whole.

On that note, a very Happy Birthday to James Baldwin! In continued remembrance of his life and mind, make sure to check out the “Chez Baldwin” collection of his records on Spotify. It is a great resource for fostering an inspiring, comforting ambiance during hard times. I hope it brings you joy!

Finally, if you’re looking to explore more material on Baldwin’s life and writing, check out Bookstr’s recent article for BIPOC Mental Health Month.