During the 1960s and 1970s, when playwright, essayist and thinker James Baldwin was at his most fiery and prolific, he regularly found himself in public debate regardless the location. Whether it was The Dick Cavett Show or the campus of Cambridge University, challengers on the Right as well as the Left felt obliged to dispute him. Primarily because many of his observations on the intersection of race, politics and popular culture made others quite uncomfortable. For most of Baldwin’s challengers, the exchange wasn’t a very fair fight.
In the wake of Raoul Peck’s doumentary I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, there has been a renewed interest in the thoughts and writings of James Baldwin. For the most part, video clips and brief appearances in documentaries highlighted with an interview has been amongst the rare ways of coming into contact with his unique facility with words and ideas today. However, a new source has been uncovered. His own estate.
The James Baldwin estate, which is famous for letting only a few scholars see any part of its collection, is now exhibiting an almost reckless abandonment of its more miserly practices. Now, Baldwin’s papers have landed in one of the nation’s leading archival institutions, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library, in Harlem.
Hundreds of Baldwin’s papers have been released for scholars to review for the first time. The estate has almost never allowed any of Baldwin’s correspondence to be published, or given biographers permission to quote a single word.
Unfortunately, many of his personal letters will remain off limits for another generation — a byproduct of complicated negotiations between the library and the estate, and a reminder that family members are not always comfortable with the spotlight’s falling on a loved one, even decades after death.
Such is the fate of America’s foremost Black public intellectual.
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