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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Receives James Baldwin Letters


Literary icon and social critic James Baldwin has inspired generations of writers since his death in 1987. But who inspired him? The answer to that question may be found in a new archive of the author's writings acquired by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at The New York Public Library. The collection includes correspondence from Nina Simone, a handwritten screenplay about Malcolm X and notes on his first novel, "Go Tell It On The Mountain." I spoke with the director of the Schomburg Center, Kevin Young. I asked him to name one item that was special to him.

KEVIN YOUNG: I mean, there are so many, but perhaps the most powerful thing that's in the exhibition we're showing for a few days here is his notes on Martin Luther King. And he wrote them 10 years after King's death. And it's just a really powerful, intimate moment where you get to see Baldwin in reflection but also Baldwin in the kinds of experiences that he would later then go on to try to dramatize in what became the recent film "I'm Not Your Negro." So you really see the process of Baldwin's writing, his civil rights engagement, his interest in the word and then also the ways in which he was transforming his work.

CORNISH: As you mentioned, there are a handful of documents on public display, but there are many restrictions on who will get to see the archive, mostly researchers and scholars. What do you think they can learn there that isn't already known about Baldwin?

YOUNG: Well, there's about 30 linear feet of material, and only about less than a foot is restricted. So it's really a wide ranging array. You get to know his writing process up close, get to see the ways he goes from notes to novel. And also I think you get to see the wide breadth of his writing. You get to see everything from plays to screenplays to novels to nonfiction. Everything is there in many different forms, and I think that's really special.

CORNISH: You're very familiar with the process of archives and working with artists and estates' families. And I understand that the letters between Baldwin and his closest friends are under, like, a 20-year seal. How common is that kind of restriction for this level of archive?

YOUNG: I don't think it's uncommon. Material sometimes is kept private, and as long as we know when that ends, I think that's fine. Part of the archive always is discovery, and we're excited for other people to discover in the archive what's there.

CORNISH: You know, you mentioned the Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro," and you have young writers today speaking about the influence of Baldwin, and it feels like he's having a cultural moment. Why do you think that is?

YOUNG: I think because his writing is as relevant as ever. He seems both prophetic and also ever present. For me, who discovered him - I don't know - in my early 20s I think, he was really that and more. You know, he is also just a prose stylist. No one, I think, can write the way he does, and no one can hold our attention the way that he can, both on the page and you can see in that film. And I hope when we get the audio that we we're processing now, you can really tell his dramatic influence.

CORNISH: Kevin Young is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

YOUNG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.