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Baldwin, James (1924-1987)

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James Arthur Baldwin, fiction writer, essayist, dramatist, and poet, was born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York during the Harlem Renaissance. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1942, he began his formal career as a writer.  Baldwin was inspired by Richard Wright, despite his being called to the ministry at age fourteen in the Pentecostal faith and church dominated by his father, David Baldwin. 

Although James Baldwin emerged as a major American literary voice by 1953 when he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, his candid and militant essays found in Nobody Knows my Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963) identified his writing with the emerging Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Baldwin stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, when the civil rights leader delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Like John Grimes, the protagonist of his autobiographical novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin struggled with his racial, sexual, and spiritual identities.  In his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), he seeks to illustrate through his treatment and characterization of his main characters the validity of homosexual love.  Baldwin also unabashedly explores the spectrum and complexity of heterosexual and homosexual love in Another Country (1962). Identifying himself as “a lover born in a loveless world," Baldwin's themes of race, sexual orientation, and the multifaceted power of love remained the central focus of his other novels and stories including Going to Meet the Man (1965), Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and his last novel, Just Above My Head (1979).

Baldwin was considered by many literary critics to be a better essayist than novelist.  His work appeared regularly in such mainstream literary magazines as Harper’s, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Partisan Review. His elegant, graceful, and candid prose; as well as his provocative socio-politically indicting voice in essays such as “Everybody’s Protest Novel,”  “The Fire Next Time,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” and “No Name in the Street,” placed him in the vanguard of the most important mid twentieth-century American writers.

James Baldwin also authored two plays, The Amen Corner (1968) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), and published a collection of poems, Jimmy’s Blues (1985). His collections of essays include Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Streets (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985). 

Baldwin's work addressed major aspects of the black experience.  His themes, ranging from black church culture to the antipathy between the police and black urban male dwellers, were celebrated and critiqued in Baldwin’s collected work.  Baldwin also made music—jazz, blues, and gospel—a central force in the world of his characters.

James Arthur Baldwin died in France, his adopted home, in 1987, and where he had once noted that for the first time he had been called simply "an American.” Baldwin had lived in France from 1948 to 1962 when he returned to the United States to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Baldwin returned permanently to Europe to escape the racism and homophobia that threatened to suffocate his life in the United States.

Warren Carson, “James Baldwin.” Encyclopedia of African American Literature. Edited by Wilfred D. Samuels (New York: Facts on File, 2007); David Leeming, James Baldwin (New York: Knopf, 1994).


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