Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 July 2019
In 2015, Toni Morrison declared, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual voice that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” With the blurb emblazoned on Between the World and Me, Coates’ break-out meditation on black life in America that adopted the form of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time from two generations prior, Morrison not only anointed the next generation of black public intellectuals, she also affirmed the cultural importance of the essay form. Baldwin is among the most prolific writers of the later twentieth century and his oeuvre is noteworthy for the variety of genres and formats in which he worked over the course of his career, from novels, short stories, poetry, and stage plays to published dialogues, an unfilmed screenplay, an illustrated children’s book, a collaborative photo-essay, and more. Baldwin’s essays are where he most directly engaged the political debates and social movements of his time and they continue to fuel his current prominence for a Black Lives Matter generation. In fact, much of Baldwin’s political legacy lies in his innovations in the essay form and his related status as political spokesman.