Friday, May 7, 2010

James Arthur Baldwin

Born in Harlem, New York August 2, 1924. James Baldwin was an American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist. Most of Baldwin's work deals with racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century in the United States.

His novels are notable for the personal way in which they explore questions of identity as well as the way in which they mine complex social and psychological pressures related to being black and homosexual well before the social, cultural or political equality of these groups was improved. His writing started as a way to escape his stern stepfather. James and his adoptive father had a tumultuous relationship.

When he was 17 years old, Baldwin turned away from his religion and moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood, famous for its artists and writers. Here, he studied at The New School, finding an intellectual community within the university. Supporting himself with odd jobs, he began to write short stories, essays, and book reviews, many of which were later collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son.

During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin left the United States and departed to Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice. He fled in order to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context and to be read as not "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer". Also, he left the United States desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York.

In 1953, Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, an autobiographical bildungsroman, was published. Baldwin's first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. Baldwin continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known.

Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, stirred controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work: despite the reading public's expectations that he would publish works dealing with the African American experience, Giovanni's Room is exclusively about white characters. Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters. These novels struggle to contain the turbulence of the 1960s: they are saturated with a sense of violent unrest and outrage.

Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28th, 1963 along with long time friends Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando. Baldwin was a close friend of the singer, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. Together with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin is responsible for making Simone aware of the civil rights movement that was forming at that time to fight racial inequality. He also provided her with literary references that influenced her later work.

Maya Angelou called Baldwin her "friend and brother", and credited him for "setting the stage" for the writing of her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

On November 30, 1987 Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.

The more we know, the taller we stand...

*Taken from Wikipedia

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  1. great history lesson to end the week. thank you. I dont know too much about James Baldwin. I will look into some of the books you highlighted thank you :)

  2. He was a great speaker too. Check Youtube for some of his lectures...