No Name in the Street by James Baldwin

Summary: Memoir and social criticism, mostly focusing on 1963 to 1969, but with excursions to his childhood. Lots of reflection on the deaths of MLK, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and others. 

I picked up No Name in the Street because it was so heavily referenced in Eddie Glaude’s recent book Begin Again. No Name in the Street is mostly social commentary and memoir. Like The Fire Next Time, it is two long essays, with no real breaks. I plan to pick up a Baldwin biography next to get some distance and a clearer life picture.

I am continually mesmerized by Baldwin’s writing. I do not think that it too strong of a description. Baldwin draws in the reader and writes with such passion and clarity. Reading Baldwin can set my mind spinning. So much of his writing feels so very current. But at the same time, he was just a bit older than MLK and Malcolm X and about 10-15 years older than younger Civil Right Era leaders like Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and John Lewis. Baldwin writes in a way that seems very current, but about history that he lived through. Especially in No Name in the Street, when he was writing about his (still recent) reactions to the large number of Civil Rights Era leaders’ deaths, it gives a weight to this book that I found hard. I put it down several times because as important as the words are, Baldwin is a weighty writer.

These two wide-ranging essays, and thematically they felt so connected that I had to confirm that there really were two different essays, are all over the place. From stories of his childhood to his work to help falsely incarcerated friends, to living conditions of ghettos, to critiques of the American project, no one is spared from his withering critique. Part of what always strikes me about Baldwin is the depth of his literary, historical, and cultural background. He was self-taught. He did not go to college or graduate school. But comparing his writing to someone like CS Lewis, who had private tutors and a first-rate educational background, as well as a life focused on the mind and a stable community; Baldwin was a migrant, frequently moving around, often living with friends or acquaintances, and many times living outside of the United States and not speaking the local languages.

I need more distance and another reading to really get at my thoughts better. This hour-long discussion of the book may be helpful if you want to get deeper into the book. But what I am just not sure of is whether Baldwin was before his time, that the prescient nature of his writing today is a sign of how little progress has been made, or if it is neither of both. I frequently read passages, and I am shocked by how well his words describe something I have not previously put into words quite as he has.

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