How creators and artists are commemorating James Baldwin in the internet age
Over the past few years, there has been a much-needed resurgence of writer James Baldwin’s significance in the cultural landscape of the U.S. This rise in his acclaim, in many ways, stemmed from the Black Lives Matter movement’s impact from 2014 onward and the rise of Baldwin-related popular media, like the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro.
In honor of Black History Month, Passionfruit spoke to multiple content creators working to highlight James Baldwin’s legacy and Black art today. It appears some of the obstacles facing Baldwin, like his work being undervalued in his lifetime, also face the creators honoring his legacy today.
Now in school districts around the U.S., books by queer, Black, trans, and indigenous authors are being challenged or banned, with some schools folding under debates about the necessity of Black History Month programming. In this age of censorship, the work of book advocates, BookTokers, and Bookstragrammers becomes even more important in combatting the erasure of Black writers like Baldwin.
Kelly Lycurgus (@kellzisbookedup) is one of these Bookstagrammers. She told Passionfruit Baldwin has seen a cultural rise in recent years, noting the impact of the 2020 George Floyd uprisings as another catalyst. “[James Baldwin] already had his fan base. Now, his work is just getting more exposure,” she said.
Lycurgus said she was also inspired by another great resource on Baldwin, an online community started by author Robert Jones Jr. called Son of Baldwin. Jones Jr. shared quotes, clips, and interviews about Baldwin’s work, building an online community of over 300,000 followers. The page eventually retired after over 14 years of operation.
In this new age of Baldwin recognition, it’s the work of Black literary advocates, like Lycargus and Jones Jr, that kept Baldwin’s literary spirit alive when it was less evident in the mainstream.
Some online efforts, like the Instagram account James Baldwin Archive (@jamesbaldwinarchive), which has over 71,200 followers, exist to offer a simple way for people to remember Baldwin. For three years, a creator who goes by the name Fawzy (@heyfawzy) has run the James Baldwin Archive.
In the page’s first post, Fazwy explained, “I made this account because one like it did not exist and that felt BLASPHEMOUS. I made this because James Baldwin’s work and life brings me deep spiritual and intellectual gratitude, because Baldwin feels constantly relevant and present, and because the kids just don’t know.”
Creators are also continuing Baldwin’s legacy through video, film, and even music. Many fans of Baldwin have been curious about his love for music and large vinyl collection. This curiosity was fulfilled in 2020 when Hammer Museum curator, Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, created Chez Baldwin, a Spotify playlist of Baldwin’s vinyl collection with over 400 tracks.
There have also been many new-found explorations of Baldwin in cinema in recent years, including 2016’s adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk and, the 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. For years, however, many Baldwin lovers have noted how he is among many Black LGBTQIA icons throughout history that haven’t been commemorated much in cinema.
One Atlanta-based creator, Joshua Gilyard (@queenofratchet), is taking on the challenge of bringing a new iteration of Baldwin to the mainstream, inspired by a text from a friend who suggested that they play James Baldwin in a biopic. As a TikToker, Gilyard currently has over 730,000 followers and usually posts comedic skits or shares lesser-known facts about Black and civil rights history. So, the idea of a Baldwin biopic seemed like a great opportunity for Gilyard.
I'm going to play James Baldwin in a biopic #queenoftheratchet #joshuagilyard #jamesbaldwin #biopic
“I kind of knew who James Baldwin was, but hadn’t dabbled into [more] research,” Gilyard told Passionfruit. “I think the first thing that I looked at was I Am Not Your Negro and there was something about [his] story that was compelling to me.” Gilyard said they became more inspired by Baldwin’s radical involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as a queer, Black writer.
Historically, Baldwin’s sexuality has been the source of much discussion and debate, with many noting that Baldwin was asked not to speak at the famed 1963 March on Washington for fear that his sexuality would hinder the movement’s efficacy. Today, similar gaps in the public perception of Baldwin still exist. 2016’s I Am Not Your Negro was hailed by many, but also earned critiques of neglecting to mention Baldwin’s sexuality, and for rephrasing Baldwin’s words for the sake of cinematic storytelling.
This research and Gilyard’s newfound awareness of Baldwin’s erasure in mainstream Black history led them to TikTok in June 2022, where they posted that they’ll be playing James Baldwin in a biopic. To date, that post has over 18,000 views. The film is currently in the process of fundraising.
In a media landscape where artists are demanding better queer, trans, and Black stories on screen, a Baldwin biopic could be a compelling answer. Baldwin’s depiction on film, however, should include deep nuance, Gilyard said.
“I think so much of the time, we concentrate on Martin [Luther King Jr] and not the people that were behind the scenes helping Martin,” Gilyard pointed out, “And there were so many queer, Black people, Bayard Rustin included, that were helping these heterosexual, Black men be the face of the movement, but there was so much [other] work going on behind the scenes.”
In the YouTube space, Mike Dennis is a video creator that started ReelBlack One (@ReelBlack), a channel with over 1.1 million subscribers that launched in 2007 to honor Black culture, film, and consciousness. The channel regularly posts videos and speeches of Baldwin.
“There are all kinds of information bouncing around the internet right in front of you, but [it’s powerful] when you can see things that are unadulterated, unfiltered right in front of you,” Dennis told Passionfruit, noting the power of archival footage. “You start to realize how little has changed in terms of the system. Then you’re more likely to try to understand how you fit into the world.”
On the same topic, Bookstagrammer Lycurgus noted how the root of current interest in Baldwin and Black history can be traced, “I’m guessing it’s whole George Floyd protests [of 2020]. It’s good and bad. [Baldwin’s] work is already good, but with all of the scandals and police murders and things that are happening [now], people are actually starting to give diverse work a chance.”
Though Baldwin is much sharper in the public image today because of his political relevance, it will be increasingly important to combat the movement to erase Black history on and offline. Some of the obstacles facing Baldwin, like his work being undervalued in his lifetime, face some of the content creators honoring his legacy. As a content creator working on uploading thousands of videos on Black history, Dennis said he struggles to be monetized by YouTube for his archival work, which earns hundreds of thousands of views per video.
Despite the many complications of how the internet and white supremacy can unduly separate a Black artist from the radical ethos of their work, the rise of Baldwin in the social media landscape seems to be a hopeful reprieve from the erasure of Black historical figures today-as long as the art and content made in Baldwin’s legacy reflect his values of radical honesty, vulnerability across identity, and a deep understanding of Black anger in the face of injustice. As highlighted by these creators, we cannot abandon a more honest Baldwin to be comforted by a more sterile version.