Considered one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, James Baldwin was not only a novelist, essayist, playwright, and poet, but an activist, fearless in his effort to explore his personal struggles and the challenges facing a changing nation. He provided readers with powerful observations and critiques of the nation in the midst of its seismic social and cultural changes.
Baldwin was born in New York City on August 2, 1924 to Emma Jones, who never would tell her son the identity of his father. Jones eventually married New York minister David Baldwin and gave her toddler her husband’s last name. Though the relationship between step-father and step-son was a tumultuous one, it didn’t prevent Baldwin from following his step-father into the church, where he served as a youth minister. At DeWitt Clinton High School, Baldwin nurtured his interest in words and writing, serving as literary editor for the school’s magazine, where he also published his first writing.
Following his 1942 graduation from high school, Baldwin went to work to help his family make ends meet. A year later, his step-father´s untimely death increased his responsibilities. Through a series of different jobs, Baldwin held onto his dream of making writing his career. Trips to New York’s Greenwich Village fueled this desire, as did his interactions with the people who became his mentors: the painter Beauford Delany, and the writer Richard Wright, who helped Baldwin secure his first writing fellowship. Baldwin met many of New York’s artistic and intellectual movers and shakers, people who would help the brilliant young man advance his writing career.
In 1948, Baldwin received a fellowship to travel to Paris, France. That move had a profound and life altering effect on his life. Like many African Americans before him, he found France to be a place where his race was not the hindrance that it was in the United States. There Baldwin felt the freedom to become the writer he wanted to be.
Baldwin published his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953. In it he confronted his feelings about his faith and his relationship with his step-father. Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner” (1954) --a great companion to the first novel -- shares its themes of the Black church and family difficulties. In 1955, Baldwin´s now-classic collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), inspired the poet Langston Hughes, to write in the New York Times, that in the book “…thought becomes poetry, and the poetry illuminates the thought.”
In his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Baldwin took greater risks in his writing; not only was the central romantic relationship a homosexual one, but his main characters are white. Years later, writer James S. Tinney, speaking to the New York chapter of the organization Black and White Men Together, noted that Baldwin had said that Giovanni’s Room, like Go Tell It on the Mountain, was semi-autobiographical and provided him an opportunity to confront his feelings about his sexual orientation.
In 1957, Baldwin was asked to report on events happening in the American South for the Partisan Review by the editor Philip Rahv. He produced two essays (“The Hard Kind of Courage” for Harper’s Magazine, and “Nobody Knows My Name” for Partisan Review) that marked the beginning of his engagement with the Civil Rights Movement. The books Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963) are among the most powerful works ever written about race and its devastating impact on the United States.
Even though Baldwin split his time between the U.S. and France, he was clear in his love for his birth land: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” In 1965, Baldwin accepted an invitation to debate William F. Buckley, founder of the American conservative magazine, The National Review. Held at Cambridge University in England, it is regarded as one of the greatest debates on the civil rights of a racial minority. According to the host of the event, the Cambridge Union Society, Baldwin’s arguments beat Buckley’s convincingly.
Baldwin participated in both the 1963 March on Washington and the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. However, by the time his collection of essays, No Name in the Street (1972), was published, Baldwin was reeling from the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and from all of the violence that was part of the fight for civil rights. He said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.”
Though Baldwin’s personal fame had begun to fade during the 1970s and 1980s, his influence lived on in writers like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Toni Morrison.
He died at home in St. Paul de Vence, France on December 1, 1987, and he is buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, NY.