Baldwin, James 1924-1987
James Baldwin 1924-1987
The American Civil Rights Movement had many eloquent spokesmen, but few were better known than James Baldwin. A novelist and essayist of considerable renown, Baldwin found readers of every race and nationality, though his message reflected bitter disappointment in his native land and its white majority. Throughout his distinguished career Baldwin called himself a “disturber of the peace”—one who revealed uncomfortable truths to a society mired in complacency. As early as 1960 he was recognized as an articulate speaker and passionate writer on racial matters, and at his death in 1987 he was lauded as one of the most respected voices—of any race—in modern American letters.
Baldwin’s greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to address American race relations from a psychological perspective. In his essays and fiction the author explored the implications of racism for both the oppressed and the oppressor, suggesting repeatedly that whites as well as blacks suffer in a racist climate. In The Block American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Walter Meserve noted: “People are important to Baldwin, and their problems, generally embedded in their agonizing souls, stimulate him to write. … A humanitarian, sensitive to the needs and struggles of man, he writes of inner turmoil, spiritual disruption, the consequence upon people of the burdens of the world, both White and Black.”
James Arthur Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem under extremely trying circumstances. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in an environment of rigorous religious observance and dire poverty. His stepfather, an evangelical preacher, was a strict disciplinarian who showed James little love. As John W. Roberts put it in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the relationship between the youngster and his stepfather “served as a constant source of tension during [Baldwin’s] formative years and informs some of his best mature writings…. The demands of caring for younger siblings and his stepfather’s religious convictions in large part shielded the boy from the harsh realities of Harlem street life during the 1930s.” During his youth Baldwin read constantly and slipped away as often as he dared to the movies and even to plays. Although perhaps somewhat sheltered from the perils of the streets, Baldwin knew he wanted to be a writer and thus observed his environment very closely. He was an excellent student who earned
Born August 2, 1924, in New York, NY; died of stomach cancer December 1, 1987, in St. Paul de Vence, France; son of David (a clergyman and factory worker) and Berdis (Jones) Baldwin. Education: Graduate of De Witt Clinton High School, New York, NY.
Writer, 1944-87. Youth minister at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, New York City, 1938-42; variously employed as a handyman, dishwasher, waiter, and office boy in New York City, and in defense work in Belle Meade, NJ, 1942-46. Lecturer on racial issues in the United States and Europe, 1955-87. Director of play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, Istanbul, Turkey, 1970, and film The Inheritance, 1973.
Awards: Eugene F. Saxton fellowship, 1945; Rosenwald fellowship, 1948; Guggenheim fellowship, 1954; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant for literature, 1956; Ford Foundation grant, 1959; George Polk Memorial Award, 1963; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for lust above My Head; named Commander of the Legion of Honor (France), 1986.
Member: Congress of Racial Equality (member of national advisory board), American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, International PEN.
special attention from many of his teachers.
In the summer of his fourteenth birthday Baldwin underwent a dramatic religious conversion during a service at his father’s church. The experience tied him to the Pentecostal faith even more closely; he became a popular junior minister, preaching full sermons while still in his teens. Students of Baldwin’s writings see this period as an essential one in his development. The structure of an evangelical sermon, with its fiery language and dire warnings, would translate well onto the page when the young man began to write. As he grew older, however, Baldwin began to question his involvement in Christianity. His outside readings led him to the conclusion that blacks should have little to do with a faith that had been used to enslave them.
Shortly after he graduated from high school in 1942, Baldwin was compelled to find work in order to help support his brothers and sisters. College was out of the question—mental instability had crippled his stepfather and the family was desperate. Eventually Baldwin secured a wartime job with the defense industry, working in a factory in Belle Meade, New Jersey. There he was confronted daily by the humiliating regulations of segregation and hostile white workers who taunted him. When his stepfather died Baldwin rebelled against family responsibilities and moved to Greenwich Village, absolutely determined to be a writer. He supported himself doing odd jobs and began writing both a novel and shorter pieces of journalism.
In 1944 Baldwin met one of his heroes, Richard Wright. A respected novelist and lecturer, Wright helped Baldwin win a fellowship that would allow him the financial freedom to work on his writing. The years immediately following World War II saw Baldwin’s first minor successes in his chosen field. His pieces appeared in such prestigious publications as the Nation, the New Leader, and Commentary, and he became acquainted with other young would-be writers in New York. Still, Baldwin struggled with his fiction. By 1948 he concluded that the social tenor of the United States was stifling his creativity. Using the funds from yet another fellowship, he embarked for Paris and commenced the most important phase of his career.
“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean,” Baldwin told the New York Times, “I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” Through some difficult financial and emotional periods, Baldwin undertook a process of self-discovery that included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality. In Tri-Quarterly Robert A. Bone concluded that Europe gave the young author many things: “It gave him a world perspective from which to approach the question of his own identity. It gave him a tender love affair which would dominate the pages of his later fiction. But above all, Europe gave him back himself. The immediate fruit of self-recovery was a great creative outburst.”
In short order Baldwin completed his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and a play, The Amen Corner. In addition to these projects he contributed thoughtful essays to America’s most important periodicals and worked occasionally as a journalist. Most critics view Baldwin’s essays as his best contribution to Amer can literature. Works like Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name served to illuminate the condition of the black man in American society on the eve of the civil rights era. Baldwin probed the issues of race with emphasis on self-determination, identity, and reality. In The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, C. W. E. Bigsby wrote that Baldwin’s central theme in his essays was “the need to accept reality as a necessary foundation for individual identity and thus a logical prerequisite for the kind of saving love in which he places his whole faith…. Baldwin sees this simple progression as an urgent formula not only for the redemption of individual men but for the survival of mankind. In this at least black and white are as one and the Negro’s much-vaunted search for identity can be seen as part and parcel of the American’s long-standing need for self-definition.”
Baldwin’s essays tackled complex psychological issues but remained understandable. His achievements enhanced his reputation both among America’s intellectuals and with the general public. In the mid-1950s he returned to America and became a popular speaker on the lecture circuit. The author quickly discovered, however, that social conditions for American blacks had become even more bleak. As the 1960s began—and violence in the South escalated—he became increasingly outraged. Baldwin realized that his essays were reaching a white audience and as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum he sought to warn whites about the potential destruction their behavior patterns might wreak. In 1963 he published a long essay, The Fire Next Time, in which he all but predicted the outbursts of black anger to come. The Fire Next Time made bestseller lists, but Baldwin took little comfort in that fact. The assassination of three of his friends—civil rights marcher Medgar Evers, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and black Muslim leader Malcolm X—shattered any hopes the author might have had for racial reconciliation. Completely disillusioned with the United States, he returned to France in the early 1970s and made his home there until his death in 1987.
Baldwin’s fiction and plays also explored the burdens a callous society can impose on a sensitive individual. Two of his best-known works, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the play The Amen Corner were inspired by his years with the Pentecostal church in Harlem. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, for instance, a teenaged boy struggles with a repressive stepfather and experiences a charismatic spiritual awakening. Later Baldwin novels dealt frankly with homosexuality and interracial love affairs—love in both its sexual and spiritual forms became an essential component of the quest for self-realization for both the author and his characters. Fred L. Standley noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that Baldwin’s concerns as a fiction writer and a dramatist included “the historical significance and the potential explosiveness in black-white relations; the necessity for developing a sexual and psychological consciousness and identity; the intertwining of love and power in the universal scheme of existence as well as in the structures of society; the misplaced priorities in the value systems in America; and the responsibility of the artist to promote the evolution of the individual and the society.”
Baldwin spent much of the last fifteen years of his life in France, but he never gave up his American citizenship. He once commented that he preferred to think of himself as a “commuter” between countries. That view notwithstanding, the citizens of France embraced Baldwin as one of their own. In 1986 he was accorded one of the country’s highest accolades when he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor. Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987, leaving several projects unfinished. Those who paid tribute to him on both sides of the Atlantic noted that he had experienced success in theater, fiction, and nonfiction alike—a staggering achievement. One of his last works to see print during his lifetime was a well-regarded anthology of essays, The Pnce of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985. In her book James Baldwin, Carolyn Wedin Sylvander concluded that what emerges from the whole of Baldwin’s output is “a kind of absolute conviction and passion and honesty that is nothing less than courageous…. Baldwin has shared his struggle with his readers for a purpose—to demonstrate that our suffering is our bridge to one another.”
Baldwin was laid to rest in a Harlem cemetery. A funeral service in his honor drew scores of black writers, politicians, entertainers, and other celebrities, many of whom offered fond eulogies for the pioneering author. The New York Times quoted writer Orde Coombs, for one, who said: “Because [Baldwin] existed we felt that the racial miasma that swirled around us would not consume us, and it is not too much to say that this man saved our lives, or at least, gave us the necessary ammunition to face what we knew would continue to be a hostile and condescending world.” Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka likewise commented: “This man traveled the earth like its history and its biographer. He reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us think, made us better, made us consciously human. … He made us feel… that we could defend ourselves or define ourselves, that we were in the world not merely as animate slaves, but as terrifyingly sensitive measurers of what is good or evil, beautiful or ugly. This is the power of his spirit. This is the bond which created our love for him/’
Perhaps the most touching tribute to Baldwin came from the pen of Washington Post columnist Juan Williams. Williams concluded: “The success of Baldwin’s effort as the witness is evidenced time and again by the people, black and white, gay and straight, famous and anonymous, whose humanity he unveiled in his writings. America and the literary world are far richer for his witness. The proof of a shared humanity across the divides of race, class and more is the testament that the preacher’s son, James Arthur Baldwin, has left us.”
Go Tell It on the Mountain, Knopf, 1953.
Giovanni’s Room, Dial, 1956.
Another Country, Dial, 1962.
Going to Meet the Man, Dial, 1965.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Dial, 1968.
If Beale Street Could Talk, Dial, 1974.
Just Above My Head, Dial, 1979.
Autobiographical Notes, Knopf, 1953.
Notes of a Native Son, Beacon Press, 1955.
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, Dial, 1961.
The Fire Next Time, Dial, 1963.
No Name in the Street, Dial, 1972.
The Devil Finds Work, Dial, 1976.
The Evidence of Things Not Seen, Holt, 1985.
The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985, St. Martin’s, 1985.
The Amen Corner (first produced in Washington, D.C. at Howard University, 1955; produced on Broadway at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, April 15, 1965), Dial, 1968.
Blues for Mister Charlie (first produced on Broadway at ANTA Theatre, April 23, 1964), Dial, 1964.
Contributor of book reviews and essays to numerous periodicals, including Harper’s, Nation, Esquire, Playboy, Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, and New Yorker.
The Black American Writer, Volume 2: Poetry and Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: The New Consciousness 1941-1968, Gale, 1987.
Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred Standley and Nancy Standley, G. K. Hall, 1981.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 2: American Novelists Since World War II, 1978, Volume 8: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, 1981, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, 1984.
The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French, Everett/Edwards, 1970.
James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Kenneth Kinnamon, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Pratt, Louis Hill, James Baldwin, Twayne, 1978.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, James Baldwin, Frederick Ungar, 1980.
New York Times, May 3, 1964; April 16, 1965; May 31, 1968; February 2, 1969; May 21, 1971; May 17, 1974; June 4, 1976; September 4, 1977; September 21, 1979; September 23, 1979; November 11, 1983; January 10, 1985; January 14, 1985; December 2, 1987; December 9, 1987.
Tri-Quarterly, Winter, 1965.
Washington Post, December 2, 1987; December 9, 1987.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Baldwin, James 1924-1987." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baldwin-james-1924-1987
"Baldwin, James 1924-1987." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/baldwin-james-1924-1987
The author James Baldwin achieved international recognition for his expressions of African American life in the United States. During the 1960s he was one of the most outspoken leaders of the civil rights movement.
James Arthur Baldwin, the son of Berdis Jones Baldwin and the stepson of David Baldwin, was born in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924. He was the oldest of nine children and from an early age loved to read. His father was a preacher in the Pentecostal church, and at the age of fourteen Baldwin also became a preacher. At eighteen he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, where he had written for a magazine put out by the school. Baldwin then realized that he wanted to write for a living.
In 1944 Baldwin met another writer named Richard Wright (1908–1960), who helped Baldwin secure a fellowship (a writing award) that provided him with enough money to devote all of his time to literature. By 1948 Baldwin had decided that he could get more writing done in a place where there was less prejudice, and he went to live and work in Europe with money from another fellowship. While overseas Baldwin completed the books Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni's Room (1956).
Spokesperson for civil rights movement
Returning to the United States after nine years overseas, Baldwin became known as the leading spokesperson among writers for the civil rights of African Americans. He gave popular lectures on the subject, and he quickly discovered that social conditions for African Americans had become even worse while he was abroad. As the 1960s began—and violence in the South increased—Baldwin grew increasingly angry. He responded with three powerful books of essays: Nobody Knows My Name (1961); The Fire Next Time (1963), in which he predicts future outbursts of black anger; and More Notes of a Native Son. These works were accompanied by Another Country (1962), his third novel. Going to Meet the Man (1965) is a group of short stories from the same period. During this time Baldwin's descriptions of Richard Avedon's photography were published under the title Nothing Personal (1964). Four years later came another novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.
In addition, the mid-1960s saw Baldwin's two published plays produced on Broadway. The Amen Corner, first staged in Washington, D.C., in 1955, was presented at New York City's Ethel Barrymore Theatre in April 1965. Similar in tone to Go Tell It on the Mountain, it describes the strong religious feeling of the Pentecostal church. Blues for Mr. Charlie, which premiered at Broadway's ANTA Theatre in April 1964, is based on the case of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American from Chicago who was murdered by white people in Mississippi in 1955.
The assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends—civil rights marcher Medgar Evers (1926–1963), the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968), and the black Muslim leader Malcolm X (1925–1965)—destroyed any hopes Baldwin had that problems between the races would be solved in the United States, and he returned to France in the early 1970s. His later works of fiction include If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979). Nonfiction writings of this period include: No Name in the Street (1972); The Devil Finds Work (1976), an examination of African Americans in the movie industry; and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), a discussion of issues of race surrounding the child murders in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1979 and 1980. A volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues, was issued in 1985.
Baldwin's greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to address American race relations by discussing the effects of racism (unequal treatment based on race) on the mind. In his essays and fiction he considered the point of view of both the offender and the victim. He suggested that all people, not just one group of people, suffer in a racist climate. Baldwin's fiction and plays also explore the burdens society places on individuals. Two of his best-known works, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the play The Amen Corner, were inspired by his years with the Pentecostal church in Harlem. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, for instance, a teenage boy struggles with a strict stepfather and experiences a religious awakening. Love in all of its forms became a key ingredient in Baldwin's writing. Later Baldwin novels deal honestly with homosexuality (sexual desire for members of the same sex) and love affairs between members of different races.
Baldwin's writing is noted for its beauty and power. His language seems purposely chosen to shock and shake the reader into a concerned state of action. His major themes are repeated: the terrible pull of love and hate between black and white Americans; the conflicts between guilt or shame and sexual freedom; the gift of sharing and extending love; and the charm of goodness versus evil. He describes the rewards of artistic achievement among the problems of modern life, including racism, industrialism (the influence of large corporations on everyday life), materialism (the pursuit of material wealth above all else), and a global power struggle. Everything that lessens or harms the human spirit is strongly attacked.
Baldwin remained overseas much of the last fifteen years of his life, but he never gave up his American citizenship. The citizens of France came to consider Baldwin one of their own, and in 1986 he was given one of the country's highest honors when he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor. He died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vance, France, but he was buried in Harlem. One of his last works to see publication during his lifetime was a collection of essays called The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985.
For More Information
Leeming, David Adams. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Washington, Bryan R. The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
Weatherby, William J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: D. I. Fine, 1989.
"Baldwin, James." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james
"Baldwin, James." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james
James Baldwin, 1924–87, American author, b. New York City. He spent an impoverished boyhood in Harlem, became a Pentecostal preacher at 14, and left the church three years later. He moved to Paris in 1947 and his first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), reflecting his experience as a young preacher, and Giovanni's Room (1956), which dealt with his homosexuality, as well as the intensely personal, racially charged essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), were written while he lived there. Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957 and participated in the civil-rights movement, later returning to France where he lived for the remainder of his life. Another Country (1962), a bitter novel about sexual relations and racial tension, received critical acclaim, as did the perceptive essays in what is probably his most celebrated book, The Fire Next Time (1963). His eloquence and unsparing honesty made Baldwin one of the most influential authors of his time. Other works include the play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964); a volume of short stories, Going to Meet the Man (1964); and the novels If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), the story of a young black couple victimized by the judicial system, and Just above My Head (1979). Collections of essays include Nobody Knows My Name (1961), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Price of a Ticket (1985). His Collected Essays was published in 1998 and The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings in 2010.
See biographies by W. J. Wetherby (1989), J. Campbell (1991), and D. Leeming (1994); interviews in James Baldwin: The Legacy (1989, ed. by Q. Troupe) and Conversations with James Baldwin (1989, ed. by F. L. Standley and L. H. Pratt); studies by L. H. Pratt (1985), H. A. Porter (1989), D. A. McBride, ed. (1999), D. Q. Miller (2000), L. O. Scott (2002), H. Bloom, ed. (2006), D. Field, ed. (2009), and M. J. Zaborowska (2009).
"Baldwin, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james
"Baldwin, James." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james
"Baldwin, James." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 30, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james
"Baldwin, James." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 30, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/baldwin-james