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
August 2, 1924
November 30, 1987
Author and civil rights activist James Baldwin was born in New York City's Harlem in 1924. He started out as a writer during the late 1940s and rose to international fame after the publication of his most famous essay, The Fire Next Time, in 1963. However, nearly two decades before its publication, he had already capture the attention of an assortment of writers, literary critics, and intellectuals in the United States and abroad. Writing to Langston Hughes in 1948, Arna Bontemps commented on Baldwin's "The Harlem Ghetto," which was published in the February 1948 issue of Commentary magazine. Referring to "that remarkable piece by that 24-year old colored kid," Bontemps wrote, "What a kid! He has zoomed high among our writers with his first effort." Thus, from the beginning of his professional career, Baldwin was highly regarded and he began publishing in magazines and journals such as The Nation, New Leader, Commentary, and Partisan Review.
Much of Baldwin's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, is autobiographical. The story of John Grimes, the traumatized son of a tyrannical, fundamentalist father in Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), closely resembles Baldwin's own childhood. His celebrated essay "Notes of a Native Son" (1955) describes his painful relationship with his stepfather. Born out of wedlock before his mother met and married David Baldwin, young Jimmy never fully gained his stern patriarch's approval. Raised in a strict Pentecostal household, Baldwin became a preacher at age fourteen, and his sermons drew larger crowds than his father's. When Baldwin left the church three years later, the tension with his father was exacerbated, and, as "Notes of a Native Son" reveals, even the impending death of David Baldwin in 1943 did not reconcile the two. In various forms, the father-son conflict, with all of its Old Testament connotations, became a central preoccupation of Baldwin's writing.
Baldwin's career, which can be divided into two phases—up to The Fire Next Time and after—gained momentum after the publication of what were to become two of his more controversial essays. In 1948 and 1949, respectively, he wrote "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone," which were published in Partisan Review. These two essays served as a forum from which he made pronouncements about the limitations of the protest tradition in American literature. He scathingly criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Richard Wright's Native Son for being firmly rooted in the protest tradition. Each writer failed, in Baldwin's judgment, because the "power of revelation…is the business of the novelist, that journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims." He abhorred the idea of the writer as a kind of "congressman," embracing Jamesian ideas about the art of fiction. The writer, as Baldwin envisioned himself during this early period, should self-consciously seek a distance between himself and his subject.
Baldwin's criticisms of Native Son and the protest novel tradition precipitated a rift with his mentor, Richard Wright. Ironically, Wright had supported Baldwin's candidacy for the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948, which allowed Baldwin to move to Paris, where he completed Go Tell It on the Mountain. Baldwin explored his conflicted relationship with Wright in a series of moving essays, including "Alas, Poor Richard," published in Nobody Knows My Name (1961).
Baldwin left Harlem for Paris when he was twentyfour. Although he spoke little French at the time, he purchased a one-way ticket and later achieved success and fame as an expatriate. Writing about race and sexuality (including homosexuality), he published twentytwo books, among them six novels, a collection of short stories, two plays, several collections of essays, a children's book, a movie scenario, and Jimmy's Blues (1985), a chapbook of poems. Starting with his controversial Another Country (1962), many of his books, including The Fire Next Time, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just above My Head (1979), were best sellers. His play Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964) was produced on Broadway, and his scenario "One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X " was used by the movie director Spike Lee in the production of his feature film on Malcolm X.
Baldwin credits Bessie Smith as the inspiration that allowed him to complete Go Tell It on the Mountain. In "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American," he writes about his experience of living and writing in Switzerland: "There, in that alabaster landscape, armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight….Bessie Smith, through her tone and cadence…helped me dig back to the way I myself must have spoken when I was a pickaninny, and to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep."
Go Tell It on the Mountain recaptures in some definitive ways the spirit and circumstances of Baldwin's own boyhood and adolescence. John Grimes, the shy and intelligent protagonist of the novel, is reminiscent of Baldwin. Moreover, Baldwin succeeds at creating a web of relationships that reveals how a particular character has arrived at his or her situation. He had, after all, harshly criticized Stowe and Wright for what he considered their stereotypical depiction of characters and their circumstances. His belief that "revelation" was the novelist's ultimate goal persisted throughout his career. In his second and third novels—Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country —he explores the theme of a varying, if consistent, American search for identity.
In Giovanni's Room the theme is complicated by international and sexual dimensions. The main character is forced to learn a harsh lesson about another culture and country as he wrestles with his ambivalent sexuality. Similarly, in Another Country Baldwin sensationally calls into question many American taboos about race, sexuality, marriage, and infidelity. By presenting a stunning series of relationships—heterosexual, homosexual, interracial, bisexual—he creates a tableau vivant of American mores. In his remaining novels, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk, and Just above My Head, he also focuses on issues related to race and sexuality. Furthermore, he tries to reveal how racism and sexism are inextricably linked to deep-seated American assumptions. In Baldwin's view, race and sex are hopelessly entangled in America's collective psyche.
Essays and Political Involvement
Around the time of The Fire Next Time 's publication and after the Broadway production of Blues for Mr. Charlie, Baldwin became known as a spokesperson for civil rights and a celebrity noted for championing the cause of black Americans. He was a prominent participant in the March on Washington at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. He frequently appeared on television and delivered speeches on college campuses. Baldwin published two excellent collections of essays—Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name —before The Fire Next Time. In fact, various critics and reviewers already considered him in a class of his own. However, it was his exhortative rhetoric in The Fire Next Time, which was published on the one hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and anticipated the urban riots of the 1960s, that landed him on the cover of Time magazine. He concluded: "If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able…to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."
After the publication of The Fire Next Time, several black nationalists criticized Baldwin for his conciliatory attitude. They questioned whether his message of love and understanding would do much to change race relations in America. Eldridge Cleaver, in his book Soul on Ice, was one of Baldwin's more outspoken critics. But Baldwin continued writing, becoming increasingly dependent on his early life as a source of inspiration, accepting eagerly the role of the writer as a "poet" whose "assignment" was to accept the "energy" of the folk and transform it into art. It is as though he was following the wisdom of his own words in his story "Sonny's Blues." Like Sonny and his band, Baldwin saw clearly as he matured that he was telling a tale based on the blues of his own life as a writer and a man in America and abroad: "Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."
Several of his essays and interviews of the 1980s discuss homosexuality and homophobia with fervor and forthrightness, most notably "Here Be Dragons." Thus, just as he had been the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, he became an inspirational figure for the emerging gay rights movement. Baldwin's nonfiction was collected in The Price of the Ticket (1985).
During the final decade of his life, Baldwin taught at a number of American colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College, frequently commuting back and forth between the United States and his home in Saint Paul de Vence in the south of France. After his death in France on November 30, 1987, the New York Times reported on its front page for the following day: "James Baldwin, Eloquent Essayist in Behalf of Civil Rights, Is Dead."
Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Kenan, Randall, and Amy Sickels. James Baldwin. Philadelphia:Chelsea House, 2005.
Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York:Knopf, 1994.
Porter, Horace. Stealing the Fire: The Art of Protest and James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.
horace porter (1996)
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 1924–1987
James Baldwin was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, scriptwriter, and filmmaker. Born in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924, he understood poverty, injustice, and the parasitic nature of city streets. Some of his teenage experiences with bigoted police and sexual predators are recounted in the well-known volume, The Fire Next Time (1963). Also in that volume, in the section titled “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” Baldwin articulates his position on race: “You must accept them [whites] … accept them and accept them with love.” He considered racism a matter of morality and human dignity, and it was blacks’ responsibility to save whites from their own ignorance, fear, and loss of identity. His ideas about racism were not the most popular, but they clearly distinguished him as an eloquent visionary.
The oldest of nine children, Baldwin was the son of a domestic worker mother and a hostile and hateful stepfather, who thought his son was ugly and disavowed his intelligence. Baldwin was raised in a Pentecostal church, dominated by the theology of “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” He followed his preacher-father to the pulpit, and by the age of fourteen he was preaching the fundamentalist doctrine of his parents. For three years, he bellowed out Old Testament scriptures, while also realizing that the church provided no sanctuary from social, economic, and political injustices.
Baldwin found his refuge in reading and writing when he attended DeWitt Clinton High School. Realizing he was black and smart, and that his mind belonged solely to him, he declared he would take advantage of his intelligence. He wrote for the school paper and published several short stories that often reflected his religious background. This beginning led to an international reputation as one of the world’s most gifted writers.
When Baldwin finished high school in 1942, he did freelance writing and worked for the railroad in New Jersey. After a succession of jobs, he moved to Greenwich Village. It was there that he met the writer Richard Wright, who helped him secure a fellowship, after which Baldwin expatriated himself to Paris in 1948. Some of his essays indicate that he left America to escape racial discrimination only to discover that his adopted country, France, was no panacea for social justice and equality.
Baldwin’s treatment of racism, though engaging and thoughtful, is comparatively restrained in much of his work. While the scope of his most critically acclaimed novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), covers religion and personal identity, the second part of the three-part story, “The Prayers of the Saints,” reveals the racial hostility and violence of the Jim Crow South, as well as the social and economic inequality of the urban North. Some of his other work, notably the 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie, and the short story collection, Going to Meet the Man (1965), explore racial conflict, with the title story, “Going to Meet the Man,” from the point of view of the racist.
Baldwin’s essays are more fervent in the exploration of race. Notes of a Native Son (1955), offers a view of expatriation that contradicts the notion of Paris as the promised land, while Nobody Knows My Name (1961) deals, in part, with race relations in the United States. Some of his fiction, including Another Country (1962), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979), present characters who suffer deliberate racism as they negotiate other problems in their lives. With graceful eloquence, James Baldwin stirred the moral consciousness of a nation bogged down in matters of race.
SEE ALSO Gay Men.
Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1953. New York: Knopf.
Notes of a Native Son. 1955. New York: Dial Press.
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of A Native Son. 1961. New York: Dial Press.
Another Country. 1962. New York: Dial Press.
The Fire Next Time. 1963. New York: Dial Press.
Going to Meet the Man. 1965. New York: Dial Press.
The Amen Corner; A Play. 1968. New York: Dial Press.
A Dialogue (with Nikki Giovanni). 1973. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
If Beale Street Could Talk. 1974. New York: Dial Press.
Campbell, James. 1991. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking.
Harris, Trudier. 1997. “James Baldwin.” In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, edited by William Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jarret, Hobart. 1977. “From a Region in My Mind: The Essays of James Baldwin.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.
Olson, Barbara K. 1997. “‘Come-to-Jesus Stuff” in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner.” African American Review 31 (2).
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Reilly, John M. 1977. “‘Sonny’s Blues’: James Baldwin’s Image of Black Community.” In James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O’Daniel. Washington, DC: Howard University Press.
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