James Baldwin died in 1987, but his moment is now. His books are flying off the shelves. He has inspired homages like Raoul Peck’s documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir “Between the World and Me.” Baldwin’s prophetic essays on race read like today’s news.
And yet a full understanding of this pioneering gay African-American artist remains elusive. While Baldwin’s books are in print, there’s one revealing work that admirers long to read but have mostly been unable to: his letters.
The Baldwin estate has held tight to hundreds in its possession, letting only a few scholars see them. It has almost never allowed any of Baldwin’s correspondence to be published, or given biographers permission to quote a single word.
Now, Baldwin’s papers have landed in one of the nation’s leading archival institutions, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library, in Harlem. But, in a striking twist, many of his personal letters will remain off limits for another generation — a byproduct of complicated negotiations between the library and the estate, and a reminder that family members are not always comfortable with the spotlight’s falling on a loved one, even decades after death.
The acquisition is a well-timed coup for the Schomburg, which announced the surprise news at a event there on Wednesday night. It’s also a kind of homecoming for Baldwin, a preacher’s son who grew up not far from the center’s landmark building on Malcolm X Boulevard.
CreditEmon Hassan for The New York Times