James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James Arthur Baldwin was born August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York City, to Emma Berdis Jones. When Baldwin was three, Emma married Evangelical preacher David Baldwin. Emma and David would go on to have eight children together. David was a strict stepfather, and he demanded more from Baldwin than the other children, straining their relationship. Isolated, Baldwin found escape and solace in reading books and caring for his younger siblings. These sanctuaries had the additional effect of keeping Baldwin away from criminal activity in his neighborhood.

As a young teenager, Baldwin began to question his sexuality. Unsure of how to cope with his identity and seeking further refuge from neighborhood drug activity, Baldwin became a junior minister at Harlem Pentecostal Church. However, the three years he spent preaching disillusioned Baldwin. He began to view Christianity as racist and hypocritical and became an avowed atheist for the rest of his life.

Although academically successful and confident in his own intellectual abilities, Baldwin faced structural racism in the educational opportunities available to him. Nevertheless, his talent shone through. At ten years old, Baldwin wrote a play that impressed his elementary school teacher. At Frederick Douglass Junior High, Baldwin met Countee Cullen, a prominent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, who encouraged Baldwin’s writing. He also began to write for the school newspaper The Douglass Pilot, publishing his first essay at the age of thirteen. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked as the literary editor of the school’s magazine.

After he graduated high school in 1942, Baldwin had to find work to help support his family because of his stepfather’s fading health. He worked for a defense contractor in New Jersey, but his anger at dealing with the day-to-day aggressions of segregation got him fired. Just before his nineteenth birthday, Baldwin’s stepfather died, and Baldwin decided to devote his life to writing.

Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, an area known for housing artists, intellectuals, and freethinkers. Through the friendship and encouragement of fellow author Richard Wright, he applied for and won the Eugene F. Saxton fellowship. Between the fellowship and several odd jobs, Baldwin supported himself enough to write several essays for major publications, like The Nation. However, he wasn’t able to complete the novel he wanted to write.

Frustrated by the racism of the United States, Baldwin emigrated to France in 1948, when he was twenty-four, where he met and interacted with some of the most noted writers and philosophers of the era, including Saul Bellow and the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Because of the different cultural norms of Paris, Baldwin was able to observe how being a Black American affected his life and identity. Paris also allowed Baldwin to accept himself as a homosexual. While in Paris, Baldwin began to establish a name for himself through a series of essays, some of which were critical of Baldwin’s first literary mentor, Richard Wright.

Despite the intellectual stimulation of Paris and the success of his essays, his dream of publishing a novel remained unfulfilled. So, in 1951, he retreated to a small village in the Swiss Alps to write what would become his first and most celebrated novel, a coming-of-age work called Go Tell It on the Mountain. Finally completed and published in 1953, the highly autobiographical novel is set in the Harlem of Baldwin’s youth and concerns the religious salvation of a young man, John Grimes, and his problematic relationship with his stepfather. Go Tell It on the Mountain was nominated for a National Book Award and brought Baldwin into the forefront of American literature.

In 1954, Baldwin received a Guggenheim Fellowship that he used to support himself through writing his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), which follows a white American student in Paris who must cope with the social implications of his bisexuality. This novel shocked audiences not only because of its nuanced exploration of sexuality, but also because it features predominantly white characters. People expected Baldwin to write only about racial issues, but he refused to limit himself. Also in 1956, Baldwin published Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays that focused on race in America. Despite some reservations, Baldwin returned to the United States briefly in the summer of 1957 to speak with leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr.  The civil rights movement had just burgeoned into a national struggle, and Baldwin became one of its most outspoken and eloquent advocates, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. 

Baldwin would continue to travel back and forth between France and the United States throughout the 1960s. In 1962, his third novel, Another Country, appeared and The New Yorker magazine published a long essay of Baldwin’s, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” which Baldwin revised to as part of The Fire Next Time (1963), another highly regarded essay collection. Infuriated by the violence against Civil Rights protestors, Baldwin wrote the play The Blues for Mister Charlie, which opened on Broadway in 1964 and was loosely based on the 1955 murder of Black teenager Emmett Till.

In 1970, Baldwin moved from Paris to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in Provence, where he hosted his artist friends. He continued to write throughout this period, including his final novel, Just Above My Head (1979), which explores both racism and homophobia, and a book-length essay called “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” Baldwin died from stomach cancer on December 1, 1987.

In addition to the books named above, other Baldwin works include the novels Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974); the essay collections Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985 (1985); the play The Amen Corner (staged in 1955); and the collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), which features the consummate “Sonny's Blues.” Originally published in the Partisan Review in 1957, “Sonny’s Blues” follows the narrator as he comes to discover who his drug-addicted, piano-playing younger brother, Sonny, truly is. Set in Harlem, like many of Baldwin’s other works, the short story is a constant struggle between light and darkness, failure and redemption.

Popular pages: Go Tell It on the Mountain