“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.”

–James Baldwin: Letter from a Region of My Mind


James Baldwin, whose passionate, intensely personal essays in the 1950’s and 60’s on racial discrimination in America helped break down the nation’s color barrier, died of cancer on 1st December 1987 at his home in southern France. He was 63 years old. At least in the early years of his career, Mr. Baldwin saw himself primarily as a novelist. But it is his essays that arguably constitute his most substantial contribution to literature.

Going back to Baldwin’s work in 1986 or 1991 or 2007 or right now is to experience something akin to reading Nostradamus or finding a message in a bottle. Impossibly enough, the smoke signals in his work have yet to dissipate, even 3 decades after Baldwin’s death. Reading Baldwin informs the reader that the social and political ills that Baldwin vowed to fight are unfinished tasks. It is the unfinished nature of these fights and the searing commentary of his on racism, intolerance and the process of alienation of people that makes him more relevant now than ever.