What’s surprising is how relevant Baldwin’s thoughts on race, society, and culture remain. In 1961 he gave a speech to the Liberation Committee for Africa, in which he alluded to Bobby Kennedy’s comment that he, too, could be president one day. Pondering the idea of an African-American in the White House, Baldwin said, “It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose—it has not entered the country’s mind yet—that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.” It is almost impossible to read these words without wondering what their author would have said about Barack Obama and the America that elected him.

Note, too, that in his response, Baldwin’s focus is not on the hypothetical black president, but on the greater society. The bulk of his writing involves issues of race or class in some way, but as a writer, he was never consumed by them. On the most basic level, his work can be read as a chronicle of the peculiar, often cruel ways in which people interact with each other.

But perhaps the best way to get a grip on Baldwin’s deep-focus approach is to read what he has to say about his own writing. A 1962 issue of The New York Times Book Review asked authors to talk about their own bestselling works, and to speculate about “what they believe there is about their book or the climate of the times that has made [it] so popular.” Baldwin’s answer speaks specifically about his novel Another Country, but the statement could apply to his entire oeuvre: “I would like to think that some of the people who liked my book responded to it in a way similar to the way they respond when Miles [Davis] and Ray [Charles] are blowing. These artists, in their very different ways, sing a kind of universal blues, they speak of… what it is like to be alive.”

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Kimberly Chou is a writer in New York.