James Baldwin is a 20th century writer who often wrote about the struggles of being Black and gay as he saw it in the United States. Baldwin’s works are still influencing current generations of writers everywhere. In 2016, one of his final unpublished manuscripts was transformed into a Netflix documentary called I Am Not Your Negro. In 2018, If Beale Street Could Talk, one of Baldwin’s pieces, was turned into an award-winning film as well.
Baldwin has written dozens of pieces including essays, novels, short stories, plays, poems, etc.. He’s a master of it all; there is a piece for every type of reader. So where should you start? Today we are going to give you a list of five James Baldwin pieces to help you find a place to start reading his works.
Sonny’s Blues (1957)
(Trigger warning for drug use.) Sonny’s Blues is one of Baldwin’s famous short stories published in his collection called Going to Meet the Man. The narrator is a high school math teacher in Harlem, who one day reads about the arrest of his brother, Sonny, in the newspaper following a heroin drug bust. Sonny eventually goes to prison, but the narrator refrains from writing to him. When the narrator’s daughter dies, he reaches out to Sonny who is then in rehab. The story follows their relationship back in time as the narrator assesses where the trajectory of Sonny’s life changed. Sonny’s past might just be what can save him.
Giovanni’s Room (1956)
Giovanni’s Room is a novel that created loads of controversy for Baldwin when originally published, mainly for its portrayal of a gay relationship. In the story, David is an American who is in Paris with his girlfriend. After she rejects his marriage proposal, she leaves for Spain. While left alone, David meets a man named Giovanni and they begin to have a bisexual relationship. The story follows their relationship as well as David’s own journey through self discovery in a period of loneliness and newness.
If Beale Street Could Talk (1974)
(Trigger warning for sexual assault.) In If Beale Street Could Talk, Tish is a 19-year-old woman who begins to date a 22-year-old artist named Fonny. After the two become engaged, Tish also becomes pregnant. Soon after, Fonny is accused of sexually assaulting a woman, of which he is wrongly convicted. The story tells of injustice and the bond that must keep lovers together through a time of distance. If Beale Street Could Talk is also the only Baldwin piece that is narrated by a female protagonist. This novel became a motion picture film directed by Barry Jenkins in 2018, so after you finish the book you will have to compare it to the film!
If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? (1979)
If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? is a little bit different from the other recommendations on this list, as it is an essay using the world around us as evidence. In this essay, Baldwin discusses “Black English” as a language that developed when slaves were first brought to the United States without a common language to articulate their experience. Over time, “Black English” has come to influence the English language as a whole. This essay was written in 1979, however it still touches on many points about cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism, which are currently contentious issues.
Notes of a Native Son (1955)
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin is a collection of 10 essays that Baldwin wrote in 1955. This nonfiction book compiles some of Baldwin’s essays that were originally published in magazines before his first novel was published. These essays hit on a wide array of issues including stereotyping, typecasting, colorism, segregation, colonization, police brutality, etc. Notes of a Native Son is a social critic on many of these issues, and was as poignant then as it is now.
There is a James Baldwin piece for everyone, whether you love poetry, essays, fiction, or nonfiction! Which are you going to read first?