Why James Baldwin’s Writing Changed My Understanding of America — and Myself

The legendary author highlighted the pain and promise of being Black in a country always striving to be its best self

8 mins read

James Baldwin captured the multifaceted nature of the American character with all its complications and its often-paradoxical nature. To be American is, to evoke Walt Whitman, to contain multitudes. And Baldwin captured this essence so well because of his many identities — he was an expat, a Black man, a gay man, a civil rights leader, a legendary writer and speaker, and an American. He understood both the benefits and complications of being American, giving him incredible insight into the dynamics of the American character and offering priceless reflections on its simultaneously convoluted and amazing properties.

Born in 1924, Baldwin was thrust into an existence with limited opportunities and resources, a child treated harshly inside of his home and persecuted outside of it. He desired so deeply to be seen outside of the identities that others used to oppress him that he left the country for decades to escape the often suffocating existence others imposed on him. But at the critical moment, when the Civil Rights Movement was underway, Baldwin returned. 

He saw opportunity to harness his experiences with both personal and collective trauma into change; to allow others, through his clarity and reason, to see America and her inextricable connection with

oppression more clearly. And he saw an opportunity to fight for an America that would not be wracked with such oppression and, thus, one freer to develop its positive qualities and a more honorable legacy.

James Baldwin is my civic hero because he exemplifies something I so wholeheartedly believe in: that you can love your country deeply and still be incredibly disappointed and angry because of its faults. As he so astutely wrote “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.” America is my

country, and the reason that I am often so dissatisfied about the state of affairs here is not because I hate it or want to abandon it, but because I recognize its flaws and wish desperately to improve it.

Given this, I think the epitome of patriotism is recognizing that your country has flaws so that you might seek to improve it. Some Americans have a tendency to claim that America is the most exceptional country to ever exist and insist it needs no improvement or revision. This seems to me

not a prideful celebration of patriotism, but a rejection of it. And by extension, a rejection of the American Dream, the idea that everyone may attain their own version of success within our society through one’s own efforts. Why should the American Dream not apply to America herself?

Democracies take work. Democracies are never perfect. And democracies are often hypocritical. In order to build a democracy in which this dream can truly exist and be accessible to everyone, to be less hypocritical and to form a “more perfect union” — it will require perpetual evaluation, the type of evaluation Baldwin tirelessly advocated for all his life. And thus, we should cherish the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of being an American with equal weight. Our continuous, individualist drive to better ourselves and to achieve great things is so ingrained in American identity it has become inseparable from it. We should harness that perseverance and apply it more broadly — to subject the country itself to ruthless, continuous reexamination and reform in the spirit of ensuring it is a country that works for us all. America was founded on principles that we still strive toward 244 years later — freedom to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it was not without its flaws, and people like Baldwin allow us to appreciate that America is not infallible; to see this as strength rather than weakness. 

I believe our own Constitution is an example of finding strength in the imperfect. Despite its seemingly revolutionary claims of equality, the Constitution has contained many deeply flawed and imperfect premises: originally proclaiming some Americans to be but 3/5th of a person and denying rights to 50% of our population on the basis of gender. But in the face of great injustice, Americans have persevered. The Constitution has been amended many times to better reflect the rights and liberties of all Americans, and this growth and change should be viewed as a strength and a testament to the adaptability of the American people.

Baldwin said that “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Baldwin became a civic hero because his works do not allow us to live in ignorance. They exerted a force that allows us to turn inward, to introspect and reflect, and to wield these observations in order to improve both ourselves and our country. His wisdom allows us to see ourselves, our identities as Americans, and how we might better relate to one another. And by extension, this introspection allows us to view America through a critical, yet loving lens.

The clarity of his writing, his speaking, and his activism allow us to better appreciate the unique experience of America, not in spite of its flaws, but because of them. The preservation of our nation relies on a delicate balance of realism and idealism; to see things as they really are, while allowing ourselves to believe that we can do better.

James Baldwin is my civic hero because he has taught me that the beauty of American identity lies both in the multifaceted and singular; the collective and individual; the complicated and straightforward; the perfect and imperfect; the terrible and great. Perhaps his most resounding message is that “You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.” His wisdom has convinced me and many others that America is adaptable; that we should harness the despair we feel about our flaws into genuine change, so that we may always work toward a more perfect union.

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