Finding media one can relate to can be a life changing experience, as if the work reaches into your soul to find something you didn’t know was there. For me, the works of James Baldwin did just this, serving as an integral step in maturing into the young woman I am today. Grappling with the concept of racism in my youth, and recognizing how it influenced my life, was a terrifying ordeal that I did not yet know how to navigate. Yet James Baldwin, who accurately portrayed the internal conflicts of my adolescence with an understanding compassion, encouraged me to self-reflect and understand my place in the world.
James Baldwin achieved this, not through overt narration, but through the subtleties of his writing; the anger at your constant comparison to stereotypes stripped of their humanity; the inability of your very assailants to admit their prejudices and the harm they’ve caused; the inability to be acknowledged as an individual. Reading excerpts from Notes of a Native Son forced me to recognize the same processes described in himself and his father in my own psyche, and how I could easily allow a reactionary hate to consume me. His writing, reaching across decades, helped me understand and learn how to cope with the reality of racism.
James Baldwin’s career exists far beyond Notes of a Native Son, and because I found it so profound I sought out more media related to Baldwin. In I am Not Your Negro, a posthumous collection of writing from an unfinished novel, his graceful yet stern summation of race relations in America again spoke to me on an esoteric level. In one specific anecdote about how the white savior complex pervades in media, he describes how the white public desires a narrative in which the oppressed Black population willingly forgives them and sacrifices their own autonomy to appease them. This was a revelation that had slowly dawned on me for years, but hearing his humorous summation of this phenomena once again withdrew a sense of clarity unique to his writing.
When interacting with the work of James Baldwin, I feel seen and heard in ways in which previous media were unable to reach me. Living in an area in which most are unsympathetic to the idea that the process of racial justice is necessary and still ongoing, the rhetorical skills of James Baldwin inspire me to stop silencing myself for the sake of the comfort of those who actively harm and perpetuate hatred towards people like me. In trying to communicate the complex ideas around racial justice, his literary prowess is incredibly proficient in impacting every single one of his readers by encouraging them to reflect on the unspoken parts of their subconscious. One day I hope to elicit the same revelations- the clarity, the affirmation- in youth that he has elicited in me. Within his work I have found a place in the world, a place in which I can spread more awareness and understanding.