What is James Baldwin's best book

James Baldwin: "Of This World" Not a bit out of date

Monday, May 24th, 2021

By Julia Riedhammer

There is currently a real hype about James Baldwin. (Cover: dtv / background: dpa / collage: dlf culture)

In 1953 James Baldwin's "From This World" was published for the first time. Anyone who reads it today has the feeling that a contemporary wrote it. No wonder Baldwin is currently experiencing a renaissance. His books are currently being published again in German.

Harlem in the 1930s. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes sweeps his parents' living room carpet. Thick dust swirls up, it is tedious work that drives the sweat out of his pores. He does it again every week and when he's done the old, greasy carpet looks exactly the same as before. It is scenes like this that make James Baldwin a classic of American literature in the eyes of many.
Because what he creates leaves a deep impression: Baldwin describes a specific scene, a very specific situation that exemplifies much greater things: Baldwin uses it to capture the situation of the black population in the USA at the beginning of the last century. The boy is not a slave, he lives freely in the north of the States. And yet he remains a prisoner in a white system that makes advancement, prosperity and a better life all but impossible for blacks.

John lives with his mother, three smaller half-siblings and his stepfather in a cramped apartment in Harlem, New York. The relationship with the stepfather, a preacher who always has the word of God on his lips, is characterized by violence. If Gabriel, the stepfather, was still a schnapps-drinking ladyboy when he was a young man, today he sees himself on the side of the moral integrity. He enforces his ideas of order and modesty within the family with great severity. And so John's path seems to be mapped out: he should become a preacher like his stepfather. The problem: John feels a lot for Elisha, a somewhat older boy in his devout church. An ordeal.

Everywhere Baldwin looks there is oppression

Based on the character of John, James Baldwin unfolds the story of the Grimes family in his novel. The grandmother still works as a slave in a cotton field in the south until she finally manages to escape. The father, the mother, the aunt - they all grow up in the simplest of circumstances, in a climate in which it is the order of the day for black men to be lynched and their wives to be raped by whites. In the hope of a better life in freedom, they are moving north, each for themselves. But nothing gets better. They work as doormen in hotels, as cleaners in white people's houses, doing their laundry or sweeping their streets. A life on the subsistence level.

An important place in the novel is religion, the hope for a better existence in the hereafter. Those who fail to make social advancement at least try the moral-moral one. But even this system, as Baldwin emphatically shows, is one of the oppression: women who become pregnant unintentionally are expelled from the community, they pay the highest price for decency and morality.
Religion is also omnipresent in linguistic terms. "The Lord's Message" permeates this novel to the last corner, right into the darkest dive bar in Harlem, in which the "black brandy" flows. This is often strange - but one thing becomes very clear: This language has always had both implications in the culture of African American people: that of oppression but also that of liberation - for example when Martin Luther King made his speeches with which he promoted the civil rights movement USA led.

"From this world" is a strongly autobiographical novel. In 1953 Baldwin published it after a long struggle. Anyone reading it today has the feeling that a contemporary wrote it. It is not for nothing that James Baldwin is experiencing a renaissance, a real hype. He has become a role model for contemporary authors, of whom Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, bows to Baldwin with "Between Me and the World" not only in terms of content, but also formally. Much seems to have stayed the same since Baldwin's death; the gap between black and white may even have widened. While Ta-Nehisi Coates says "Between me and the world", Baldwin still has something in common, a fight that is worth fighting. Namely: "In this world".

It is a gift that Baldwin's books are now published again in German.
James Baldwin: "From This World"
dtv, 320 pages, 22 euros

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