James Baldwin on the Purpose of Writing

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it. –James Baldwin

Today, August 2nd, is James Baldwin’s birthday, so for this week’s quote of the week, I thought it appropriate to choose a quote from among the many wonderful ones he has. I learned much about story telling from Baldwin–his beautiful, sharp prose, his meticulous construction of characters, pacing, and narrative structure. His essays were even superior to his fiction. He is arguably the best, most eloquent American essayist of the twentieth century. But the most important thing I learned from him was to maintain a clear idea of my purpose for writing.

I have admired James Baldwin since working on my high school high school literary magazine, The Magpie. I came across a piece he wrote for it while he attended De Witt Clinton in the Bronx. As an young aspiring writer looking for role models while getting a steady diet of old white, male writers, his words were a salve.

It is not surprising that his words keep surfacing in these troubled times. Raoul Peck’s recent documentary based on Baldwin’s writing, I Am Not Your Negro, rekindled my interest in the writer. I showed the film, along with his powerful book, The Fire Next Time, for a course I taught titled “Race and Whiteness.” I did this after having the class read Ta-Nahesi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me, which was has many affinities with Baldwin’s earlier book. I am happy that America is re-discovering Baldwin. Today, his words matter more than ever. They provide us with much needed wisdom and direction.

This quote never fails to move and inspire me. For me, it sets the foundation for my own writing. Along with Baldwin, I deeply believe in the power of the written word to transform and change. Although he alludes to literature, representation of diverse perspectives of reality is necessary in all narrative art. It is a concept fundamentally linked to the transformative power of narrative. These words written in the sixties, along with so many other ideas found in his work, established Baldwin as a visionary. All Americans should read his work; it is essential to understanding their country.

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