James Baldwin was born in Harlem and educated in New York City schools. He gained literary prominence with the publication of his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956) and his largely biographical essays critical of contemporary society, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955). With these and the later essay collections, Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963), replete with their honesty, moral urgency and racial pride in the history of black Americans, Baldwin had become, in the words of Kenneth Clark, “a delicately tuned instrument of pure communication [using his skill and talents to revive] the conscience of America.”
Baldwin’s insights were universally truthful: “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread that they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them poisoned.” And on the importance of introspection and individual courage to democracy, he wrote: “Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person…It is certain, in any case, that ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Prefacing his Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin states a simple goal: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” In four novels, three essay collections, a collection of stories, a play and numerous public appearances he, indeed, achieved this goal to the benefit of his native land.