James Baldwin left Harlem, but Harlem never left him. The essays, the poetry, the novels that flowed from him over 50 years stemmed from the uptown streets he walked, the bars and speakeasies he frequented, the schools he attended, even the church he briefly led.
Now, 30 years after his death in France, the expatriate’s papers have come home, his legacy having made a full circle. The 77 boxes, full of Baldwin’s manuscripts, photos, letters, notes and more, are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard, where his essence lives on. Simultaneously, he’s being celebrated in bookstores, museums, schools, churches and by the people who walked the same streets he did.
It was a nearly spiritual experience for Alexsandra Mitchell seeing the boxes arrive to the Schomburg Center. There, Baldwin’s work will be displayed among writings by Maya Angelou and other 20th century African-American authors.
“The perfect place for him to be is with his peers here,” said Ms. Mitchell, a librarian and archivist at the Schomburg Center, who curated the weeklong exhibition in April. James Baldwin, born in Harlem, was a novelist, essayist and author of such titles as “The Fire Next Time,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and “Another Country.”
Ms. Mitchell remembers when she first found out the Schomburg Center would receive the papers.
“There was just a deep reverence. I remember my supervisor saying ‘We’re going to do you justice,’ and I remember carrying that feeling the entire time.”
At 128th Street and Fifth Avenue, steps away from the James Baldwin Place sign, is the former P.S. 24, the elementary school Baldwin attended. It is now Harlem Renaissance High School, where both teachers and students still find ways to pay tribute to Baldwin.
Zena Wouadjou, an Advanced Placement English teacher at the high school, said Baldwin’s work has been a theme to freedom for her.
She vividly remembers, as a 10-year-old, watching a made-for-television movie of Baldwin’s “Go Tell it On The Mountain.” Her parents, she said, let her leave the Bronx only to go to a bookstore in Harlem to get Baldwin books. “James Baldwin makes you confront yourself,” she said.
Now, Ms. Wouadjou has found ways to integrate Baldwin’s literature into her curriculum.
“His work is always relevant. It’s something that the kids can always connect to. The ideas and topics are always something that can engage the students.”
Ms. Wouadjou uses Baldwin’s writings to encourage her students to read more African-American novels, essays and plays.
In a few weeks, Ms. Wouadjou will host a public discussion with Vanessa Emile, another English teacher at the school, titled Confronting Self, about why teachers sometimes shy away from teaching Baldwin, with his wrenching explorations of race, class and sexual identity.
A few blocks away, at Revolution Books, on Malcolm X Boulevard, customers trail in daily seeking Baldwin novels. “Giovanni’s Room” and “The Fire Next Time” are among the more popular titles, and Revolution must continually replenish empty bookshelves.
“There is no writer as synonymous with Harlem as Baldwin,” said Raymond Lotta, a spokesperson for Revolution Books. “James Baldwin’s work is so vital to what this bookstore is about. His voice resonates with us today. A writer like Baldwin, though he himself was not a revolutionary, he had hopes that America could become something other than what it is.”
In the early 1990s, a few years after Baldwin’s death, David Leeming sorted Baldwin’s material that is now held at the Schomburg Center.
Mr. Leeming was a young English instructor, fresh out of Princeton, when he met Baldwin almost 60 years ago in Istanbul, at a social gathering. Baldwin was sitting at a kitchen counter penning the last words of “Another Country.” Their friendship was immediate and lifelong, Leeming said. Baldwin dedicated “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” to Mr. Leeming.
About the new Schomburg acquisition, Mr. Leeming said it’s what Baldwin wanted.
“When I was with him, when he was passing, we talked about that, and he definitely said he wanted his papers put in the Schomburg,” because he’d spent so much time there during his adolescence.
“He was a genuine writer,” Mr. Leeming said. “He really wanted to know what people thought, what they did, how they thought, why they thought.”
Ms. Mitchell, the archivist, said the Schomburg Center has already had another small exhibition since April, adding that the public will come to learn much more about Baldwin, the writer and the man, as curators continue to delve into the 77 boxes. “His lasting influence in Harlem is largely evident with the archive being here,” she said. Baldwin’s gift will live on “for people to research for 100, 200, even 300 more years.”