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Spotlight on James Baldwin: The Books that Inspired Him

By Lauren Jones, Zoe Doyle, Amy Wright, Ana Matute and Sam Chambers

James Baldwin lived in an era of intense social and political pressure. Born in 1924 Harlem, his work often explored the intricacies of masculinity, civil rights and the gay liberation movement. He also supported multiple upcoming voices during his career as an author. This issue, we’re spotlighting James Baldwin, and sharing our favourite books that inspired him.

A Lonely Rage: The Autobiography of Bobby Seale by Robert “Bobby” Seale

A Lonely Rage is the autobiography of American political activist, author and engineer Robert Seale. Seale is also well-known as a co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Seale doesn’t hold back in this book, and tells his life story with incredible detail, revealing how the “lonely rage” developed in him and how it influenced his life, both as a man and as an activist.

Reading an autobiography is always an intimate and emotional experience, and A Lonely Rage was no exception. Seale’s narration of his memories and relationship with his father is stirring, and while the autobiography as a whole is an intense read, it is also fascinating to have such acute insight into such a prominent figure’s life.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

Constructed from passages from her plays, interviews, diary entries and letters, To Be Young, Gifted and Black was adapted posthumously. Hansberry was a successful playwright, born in Chicago in 1930, and was the youngest of four children. Her play A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of an ordinary African American family and made Hansberry the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. James Baldwin would go on to say that never before “had so much truth of Black people’s lives been seen on the stage.” In this autobiography, we get a glimpse of the person behind the art, and the unique format of this book paints an honest picture of her journey from a Chicago ghetto, through college and the creation of the play that would launch her career.

Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether

With a foreword by James Baldwin, Daddy Was a Number Runner is an important and accessible modern classic. Set in the thirties during the era of the Great Depression, the story is told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Francie Coffin who lives with her family in Harlem. The Coffin family are a poor Black family living in and surrounded by poverty, and Francie’s father becomes a number runner as he is unable to find legal work. Meriwether herself grew up in Harlem during the Depression, and the author takes us through a year of Francie’s life where racism, violence and gangs are an everyday occurrence. A timeless exploration of race, class, gender and family, this coming-of-age work of historical fiction will certainly have an impact on you.

Duties, Pleasures, and Conflicts: Essays in Struggle by Michael Thelwell

This book is an ideal overview of the history of Black civil rights and activism as this is still an important issue. It has different essays and stories, one by James Baldwin, focus on social justice and Black freedom. The way this book is composed allows readers to understand the diverse perspectives on how the fight for civil rights had multiple voices during the sixties.

It is definitely a must-read to approach Black activism and understand how from its beginning it involved arts and daily life. This text is a political statement in which multiple authors participate to show the difficulties and conflicts of activism.

The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

The Man Who Lived Underground is a short novel with a Kafkaesque premise: a man is arrested and tortured for a crime he did not commit – and the police know it. Eighty years after Wright wrote the original manuscript, the full-length tale of Fred Daniels’ escape into the sewers was published for the first time in 2021. Baldwin greatly admired the original short story for its aesthetic value.

Baldwin had a pedagogical relationship with Wright, who was the foremost Black American writer of the forties. Though he publicly slated Wright’s best-known work Native Son (1940), Baldwin admired his literary father for his craftsmanship. Like all Wright’s fiction, The Man Who Lived Underground is unapologetically violent and brutal. It is also a strange and hallucinatory voyage which can be said to be Wright’s true best work.



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