James BaldwinJul 12th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1924-1987 Dividing his time between America and Europe, James Arthur Baldwin wrote numerous novels, essays, and plays that vividly depict the struggle of Blacks in white America. As an active member of the civil rights movement, Baldwin continually maintained that it was only through nonviolent action that racial equality could be obtained.
Growing up as a Preacher
Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem. The illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones, a domestic worker continually surrounded by hardships and poverty, Baldwin turned to literature for escape at a very young age. He was a voracious reader and spent much of his childhood in local libraries. By age 12, he had begun writing and published his first story in a church newspaper.
Baldwin’s mother had meanwhile married David Baldwin, a factory worker who was also a storefront preacher in a Pentecostal church in their neighborhood. Despite their unloving and difficult relationship, Baldwin adopted both his stepfather’s last name and his passionate faith. By the time Baldwin was 14, he was preaching regularly in the church. This experience in the black religious community shaped the themes of his early literary texts. His first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, published in 1953, follows a young boy who is driven to become a minister by his brutal stepfather. Although this character eventually finds real religious faith, the novel explores the constant push and pull of a demanding father figure and a mysterious, secretive mother.
In 1941, at age 17, Baldwin left both his home and the church. Although his work would continue to draw on a religious rhetorical style, in the early 1940s, Baldwin began to slowly shift his devotion from his Pentecostal roots toward his other childhood passion of writing. He took a job working on the New Jersey railroad before moving to New York City. It was while living in Greenwich Village that Baldwin first met Richard Wright. The older writer was impressed by Baldwin’s early essays and book reviews, which had been published in The New Leader and The Nation. Wright’s pivotal novel, Native Son, had a lasting effect on the young Baldwin, and even inspired the title of his 1955 book of stories and essays, Notes of a Native Son.
As the 1940s drew to a close, Baldwin became increasingly frustrated with the prevailing racial discrimination he experienced on a daily basis in New York. In 1948, he left the United States for Paris in order to escape these prejudices. He was supported and assisted in this move by Richard Wright, who also chose to spend large periods of time in the more creative and culturally liberal Europe. The friendship between the two writers suffered an irreparable breach, however, in 1949, when Baldwin published “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” an essay that criticized the lack of character development in Wright’s novels.
A View of America from Europe
Over the next eight years, Baldwin lived in Europe, moving among France, Switzerland, and Turkey. This was a period of financial hardship for the author, but also proved to be an extremely creative and prolific period. In addition to completing both his first novel and Notes of a Native Son, he also wrote a second novel entitled Giovanni’s Room. In this second book, Baldwin tackled issues of sexuality and interracial relationships for the first time as the novel’s narrator, David, recounts the execution of his Italian lover, Giovanni, after he is accused of murder.
Throughout his time in Europe, Baldwin was concerned primarily with the experiences of Blacks in white American culture. He often claimed that living in other countries provided him with a clearer view of his own society. In 1957, driven by a sense of responsibility to the cause, Baldwin returned to New York and immediately immersed himself in the Civil Rights Movement. He spent an extended period of time traveling in the south, which resulted in the nonfiction book The Fire Next Time. Examining the Black Muslim movement in America, the text assesses various peaceful and nonviolent methods of combating the racial divide. Although he was attacked by many critics for his pacifist stance, Baldwin passionately believed that only through love and brotherhood could the tangled social issues of the day reach any kind of resolution.
In the late 1960s, Baldwin’s nonviolent position within the Civil Rights Movement was sorely tested. The period of great hope that culminated with the March on Washington in 1963 was quickly followed by the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In anger and disappointment, Baldwin fled back to France. His central novel of this period, If Beale Street Could Talk, published in 1974, received wide critical condemnation for its disillusionment with the civil rights cause.
Throughout the last years of his life, Baldwin moved back and forth between America and Europe. He found an outlet for his sense of social responsibility in teaching, and joined the faculty of the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He worked closely with a young African American writer at Mount Holyoke College, Suzan-Lori Parks, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002.
Baldwin died of stomach cancer on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul, France. Over the course of his career, he produced over 20 books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, as well as several plays. Although he continues to influence black writers and activists to this day, Baldwin was ultimately concerned with universal themes. He refused to limit himself to the confines of his identity as an African American writer, and challenged himself instead to explore, in both fiction and nonfiction, the experiences of citizens of the world.