Some people know James Baldwin as a novelist, essayist, and memoirist. He is one of the great American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Others know him from the big screen, having seen I Am not Your Negro (read our review here) or If Beale Street Could Talk. There will be more films to come.

Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. Great spiritual leaders of our time have lauded the writer’s influence on them. Eboo Patel is one of these; ten years ago Eboo (one of our Living Spiritual Teachers) wrote of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son: “I love [it] for its fury, for its stark take on the world as it is, for its ability to confront contradiction without resolving it.”*

This new book by Greg Garrett, professor of literature and culture at Baylor University and Canon Theologian at the American Cathedral in Paris (where Baldwin lived in exile for much of his adult life), eloquently communicates this fury, this stark witness, and an ability to look at complexity without feeling the need to resolve it neatly.

An introductory chapter that explores Why James Baldwin, why now? Then comes an introduction to the scope of the writer’s life. This is followed by essay-like chapters on Baldwin as a prophet of humanity, a commentator on culture, and a person of faith. As someone who felt profoundly unwelcome in late twentieth-century America, he speaks on the subject of race, on justice, and on identity — including as a Black man, as a gay man, and as a person of religious sensibilities.

In summary, Garrett writes toward the end of his book: “Baldwin leaves us … on the journey he urged us to take: to reject the status quo, to wrestle with our own sense of importance and awareness of worth, and to work toward a future where hatred and prejudice will, always, be overwhelmed by love.” Garrett’s purpose is clearly to inspire readers to listen to Baldwin, and to learn from him.

See the excerpt accompanying this review for another summary of Baldwin’s message for readers today, according to Greg Garrett.

* See “Eboo Patel on James Baldwin's 'Autobiographical Notes' “ at Beacon Press.