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James Baldwin - Biography

James Baldwin, was a writer and civil rights activist. He was born on August 2, 1924 and died on December 1, 1987. James (Arthur) Baldwin was an important African American prolific writer of novels, poetry, short stories, plays and essays, as well as a civil rights activist. He was born in Harlem, New York, USA. He would be the first child of the nine children his mother, Emma Berdis Jones (1904 - 1999) would give birth to. James Baldwin would never know who his biological father was. James Baldwin was young when his mother married David Baldwin, a factory worker as well as a preacher who would adopt him. James Baldwin’s family was poor and the relationship between the father and the son would not be good. James Baldwin would attend DeWitt Clinton High School (class of 1942) in the Bronx. At age fourteen he became a member of the Pentecostal church in Harlem where he began preaching at that time too. While his father opposed his literary aspirations, James Baldwin would find support from both a teacher and, remarkably, the mayor of New York City at the time, Fiorello H. LaGuardia (1882 - 1947).

James Baldwin would end up leaving his family at the age of seventeen to settle in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood of New York City famous for its artistic environment and free thinkers. In the early 1940s he would abandon his religious faith and focus fully instead on his passion for literature. Making a living by doing odd jobs, James Baldwin began writing short stories, essays and book reviews. These early texts would be published in Notes of a Native Son in 1955. He would choose such title in clear reference to his friend Richard Wright’s (1908 - 1960) novel Native Son (1940). Eventually James Baldwin would become aware of his homosexuality and in 1948, disgusted by the amount of prejudice against both blacks and homosexuals in the United States, he would leave to Paris in his mid twenties where he would spend virtually the rest of his life.

James Baldwin is widely considered as one of the greatest writers of his generation. He would be very influenced by the situation of blacks in his country as well as his personal experience of poverty when he lived in Harlem. Ultimately James Baldwin would become one of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Discrimination, be it racial of sexual would be a recurring theme in his work. More precisely, he would seek to show the isolation of blacks in society, but also the loneliness of many regardless of color, which according to him resulted from ambiguities inherent in one’s being. Homosexuality and the desire to be integrated is only one of the many instances of such feeling of loneliness.

James Baldwin’s most known and celebrated work is his partially autobiographical novel Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953). “Go Tell It On The Mountain” was initially a gospel sung by slaves on plantations in the south of the United States. It would eventually be sung by African-American singers and there would also be a country version of it by Simon & Garfunkel. James Baldwin’s text denounces racism and more precisely the injustices done to the African American community in the US in the 1920s. The book is considered one of the literary masterpieces of that era. In what was his first novel, James Baldwin's writing in 1952 tells us in a heartbreakingly sincere prose both, his own experience, and that of a family caught in a kind of a culture shock moving from the rural South to a ghetto in the North of the US. On the evening of his fourteenth birthday in a disused shop in Harlem, in the midst of prayers and the rhythmic stamping of his brothers in the background, John Grimes goes through his “dark night”. Tormented by the idea of sin after having gone to the roots of his guilt, it seems to him at the dawn of a Sunday that he has had his moment of truth. This novel would become a classic, perhaps partly because it would in fact be one of the first books on the black condition.

James Baldwin would share having been profoundly marked by three distinctive identities in his life. The one of being black, the one of being poor, and the one of being homosexual. Because of those James Baldwin would be able to represent a very particular position which until then had not been found in black American authors. As a result, James Baldwin would be able to develop a complex thought free from essentially any dogma. Additionally, it would mean that the question of the other, and particularly of their humanity, as well as the recognition of the other in oneself would all be central to his work. In this way, even though James Baldwin would be deeply critical of the white American society, he would avoid tempting but easy categorizations. He would argue that these are masks that make recognition of the other and responsibility impossible, and that we must therefore find a way to remove them. It is in this vein that James Baldwin would write about the: “masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” This is why he would encourage people the “[F]ruitful communion with the depths of his own being.”

James Baldwin’s message would be refreshingly unique. Unlike other African American important figures of the 60s, because of the transgressive nature of his work, refusing to play the roles typically ascribed to African American intellectuals, his oeuvre continues to illuminate the most contemporary issues. The following quote from a 1961 interview can perhaps help to get an indication as to why his work continues to be relevant:

“Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to him from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it's true of everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.”

In 1956 James Baldwin would publish Giovanni’s Room in which he openly discusses the issues of race and homosexuality that had until then been taboo. In 1957 he returned to the United States to participate in the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther Kind and Malcolm X. James Baldwin would publish in 1961 an important essay on race relations and the role of writers in society entitled Nobody Knows my Name: More Notes of a Native Son, which would be followed in 1962 by the novel Another Country. Soon after in 1963 he would publish The Fire Next Time, widely considered as one of the most brilliant essays on the history of black protest, a book which would go as far as attracting a large white audience. In this premonitory work James Baldwin predicts an explosion of violence across the country if whites do not change their attitude towards the black population. James Baldwin would also write two plays: The Amen Corner(1955), and, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964).

James Baldwin would be internationally recognized on numerous occasions during both his lifetime and after his untimely death. He would win the prestigious George Polk prize in 1963. His influence on other writers would be deep and lasting such as with Toni Morrison (1931 - ), for example. In 1987 the “National James Baldwin Literary Society” would be founded and in 1992 Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, the innovative institution of higher learning where Baldwin had taught in the eighties, started the “James Baldwin Scholar Program” which “provides scholarships to talented students from undeserved communities who would benefit from a transition year before college”. James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” is often included in anthologies of fiction studied in college literature seminars. In 2002 Molefi Kete Asante, founder of the first PhD program in African American Studies, would include James Baldwin in his biographical dictionary entitled 100 Greatest African Americans. The US Postal Service in 2005 made a first-class stamp dedicated to James Baldwin.

James Baldwin would succumb to stomach cancer at the relatively young age of 63 on December 1st 1987 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in southeastern France. He would be buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, not far from New York City where many other artists and prominent figures have been laid to rest.

James Baldwin was a writer and civil rights activist. (August 2, 1924 - December 1, 1987)