Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s “What James Baldwin Means To Me” first appeared in French in the March 2019 issue of Transfuge.
For twenty years, James Baldwin’s Collected Essays has sat close to my writing desk, closer than any other book I own. My edition was edited by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, which makes the book special for me, having once had occasion to speak with her about him. I have travelled with these essays between my childhood homes of Jos, Nigeria, and London, England, to where I now live, in San Francisco. Baldwin’s writings are a guide and inspiration to me.
My introduction to Baldwin came with Giovanni’s Room, which I read in my twenties one Saturday afternoon, curled up in bed in Peckham, South London. I read it in one sitting, marveling at Baldwin’s prose and his courage, for that time, to write a love story about gay men. A few years later, I would come to his essays in search of a deeper understanding of America—her history and her present. I was astounded by the scope of his writings—essays that travel between America, Europe, West and North Africa—and I was moved by the profound wisdom contained within them.
Baldwin writes with the sharpest of intellects—head, heart and gut combined—always leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. When he writes, in his 1965 essay “The American Dream and the American Negro,” that “Unless we establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble,” it sounds like he’s talking to America today with its racial strife and income inequality. Similarly, in his 1955 essay, “Equal in Paris,” I found some of his observations of Paris to still be true, decades later, including that “when dealing with the bureaucracy, the man you are talking to is never the man you have to see.”
So many of his works read as both prescient and timeless. What is also remarkable to me is that Baldwin writes from a place of love even though he was both recipient and witness to many injustices and racial violence in his lifetime. I have learned from Baldwin and frequently draw on his thinking for my own work. In my essay, “Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie,” Baldwin guides me towards being committed to the struggle against racism while trying to keep my heart free of hatred and despair.
Not only is Baldwin’s work timeless, but his messages are universal. When Baldwin writes in Notes of a Native Son, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” these are powerful words for citizens of every nation. I think of these words, at the start of 2019, in relation to the Zimbabwean human rights activist, Pastor Evan Mawarire, who continues to wrap himself in the Zimbabwean flag, insisting upon the right to criticize his home country for love of country.
On the cover of my copy of Baldwin’s Collected Essays is a glossy black-and-white photograph that shows Baldwin with his brow slightly furrowed and eyes wide, wide open, looking out to the reader with just a hint of a smile. “Shine your eyes” is the Nigerian expression for needing to look and think harder. Baldwin, lovingly, insists on it.
Graph image of James Baldwin by Morrison Hotel Gallery.
About the Writer:
Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s first novel In Dependence (2009) has sold over three million copies in Nigeria. Her second novel Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) was shortlisted for the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize and the 2018 California Book Award. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California and teaches literature at San Francisco State University. The Chair of Judges for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, she sits on the boards of Hedgebrook and San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora.