There is never a bad time to encounter James Baldwin, and as the wide success of the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro has made clear, the appetite in Trump’s America for his prescient brilliance on race and civil rights is fierce and growing.
His 1962 classic The Fire Next Time was originally a letter, written by Baldwin to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the so-called emancipation of black America. In the letter’s penultimate paragraph, Baldwin writes: “This is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.” It is rhythmically similar to Trump’s red-hatted mantra – but there’s a big difference between trying to make America “great again” and focusing on what it once was, rather than what it “must become”.
More than 50 years on, The Fire Next Time has been reprinted by Taschen in a beautiful new edition that pairs his text with images by the civil rights-era photographer Steve Schapiro. Baldwin was “the scribe of the movement, our illustrious griot, who knew our struggle because he lived it”, as congressman John Lewis writes in the foreword. But before mobile phone videos and Twitter allowed black Americans to directly telegraph their plight to the world, it was up to photojournalism to visualise the message, as Schapiro’s images did in Life magazine.