By Dionn McDonald
One of the great writers of the twentieth century, James Arthur Baldwin was a novelist, playwright, essayist, civil rights activist, lecturer and poet. His work was instrumental in deepening the understanding of race relations in the U.S. in the middle of the twentieth century. The themes that often surfaced in his work were race, religion, and sexualities. His novels were often semi-biographical, bursting with the joys and pains of himself and of the people around him. As a civil rights activist, he lent his resounding voice to the movement and was regarded by many as a perceptive authority on matters of race in the United States.
Baldwin was born in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration. Harlem was a diverse community bustling with ideas and creativity. Born on August 2, 1924 to Emma Berdis Jones, in a poor neighborhood known as the Hollow, Baldwin never knew his father. In 1927, his mother wed David Baldwin. As the oldest of nine children, he had the task of helping to raise his siblings. As stepson of the elder Baldwin, James was subject to a great amount of harsh treatment. The family was affected by the Great Depression as were others living in poverty. There were times when necessities were sparse.
As a boy, Baldwin possessed what has been described as a “haunted look.” His expressive eyes suggested that there was something he already knew about this world. In school, his pursuit of knowledge was encouraged by liberal feminist teachers, black and white alike. He attended Frederick Douglas Junior High School and DeWitt Clinton High School, where he wrote for the school magazines. At Frederick Douglas Junior High, he wrote under the tutelage of Countee Cullen, a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also said to have been a student in Cullen’s French class, where it is believed he gained his initial interest in traveling to Paris. At the age of fourteen, he became a preacher at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. His presence proved to be beneficial for the congregation, as he drew large numbers of people. Initially he enjoyed this environment and the stature he gained from it. But he soon began to question the validity of the Bible and the church’s use of his talent. After preaching for three years, he left the ministry in 1941 at the age of sixteen.
At the same time he was leaving the church, Baldwin’s sexuality pressed upon him. He soon moved to Greenwich Village. There he lived with his mentor, Beauford Delaney, a modernist painter of the Harlem Renaissance. In the Village, he began to explore his sexuality. Although he had found some freedom there, his stepfather’s death and mother’s ailing health required frequent trips home. Daniel Baldwin, Sr. died in 1943.
In 1948 Baldwin left the U.S., with its race-related problems, and headed for France. In Europe, he could be more open about his sexuality and less encumbered by race. While in Europe, he published two novels and his first collection of essays. His first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), explored the ways in which the church controls the lives of African-Americans. This first novel achieved commercial success and has become greatly respected in American literature. His more controversial second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), was set in Paris and based around gay characters. Baldwin’s position as a well-respected writer helped the novel to be accepted. The success of Giovanni’s Room created a space for the representation of gay life in literature. Notes of a Native Son (1955), his first published collection of essays illuminated his relationship with his step-father and life in Harlem. In 1957, he published another collection of essays titled Going to Meet the Man, dedicated to his mentor Beauford Delaney. The collection addresses race, family, sexuality and addiction. The essay “Sonny’s Blues,” exemplifies Baldwin’s feelings about leaving Harlem, but not yet escaping his own demons.
As the civil rights movement became front page news in the United States, Baldwin returned to the U.S. In 1962, he published Another Country, which was the most controversial of his books to date. This novel pushed the national discourse on homosexual relationships and interracial relationships. He became active in the mainstream civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a respected authority on race relations, he participated in debates with Malcolm X and others. Through their commentary on one another, there seemed to be a mutual respect between the two men. However, Malcolm greatly criticized Baldwin’s group meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. He believed that the meeting was a farce. However, the fallout from this meeting revealed Baldwin to be a radical in the eyes of Robert F. Kennedy. Speaking to the racial inequality in the United States, Baldwin published two essays contained in The Fire Next Time (1963). Of Blacks in America, he says, “He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Baldwin reminds his readers that the progress of this country is dependent upon the health and wealth of all its people. In his suggestion that the house is burning, he holds whites accountable for the ills of American society. This book gave him a firm footing in the national discourse on race. In this year he became a greater presence in the civil rights movement, participating in the March on Washington and as a speaker at other marches and rallies. In the play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), Baldwin pays tribute to Emmett Till, who was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Even after returning to Europe in 1965, the native son continued to fight for racial justice in the United States. He campaigned for the release of the Harlem Six, who were believed to have been wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. He also publicly spoke out against the arrest of political activist Angela Davis in 1970. In an open letter to her, he wrote, “for if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” His novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), was inspired by the highly racialized criminal case of a member of his circle. Baldwin continued to participate in and help to organize actions to demand social and political change. His overtly political writing and his support of the Black Panther Party and Communist Party activist Angela Davis gained him the label of radical.
Baldwin continued to write during the 1970’s and 1980’s, with his last novel being Just Above My Head (1979). With gay characters and themes, it recalls his youth and burgeoning sexuality. He also published a collection of essays, The Price of the Ticket, a discussion on race relations over the preceding forty years. In his later years he taught at university, influencing a new generation of writers. During his life, Baldwin was awarded several fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. In June of 1986, he was made a Commander in the French Legion of Honor. James Baldwin died December 1, 1987 in France. His beloved Harlem said goodbye to its native son and he was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery.
Boyd, Herb. Baldwin's Harlem. Atria Books. 2008.
James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Therman B. O'Daniel. Howard University Press. 1977.