James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. He was an important African American prolific writer of novels, poetry, short stories, plays and essays, as well as a civil rights activist. Baldwin's essays explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America.
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. When Baldwin was an infant, his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, divorced his father because of drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York, where she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. James spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At age ten, he was beaten by a gang of police officers. His adoptive father, whom James in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated James—versus James's siblings—with singular harshness.
James Baldwin the prestigious, mostly Jewish DeWitt Clinton High School, in Bedford Park, Bronx(class of 1942), where, along with Richard Avedon, he worked on the school magazine—Baldwin was its literary editor. After high school, Baldwin studied at The New School, finding an intellectual community. At age fourteen he became a member of the Pentecostal church in Harlem where he began preaching at that time too.
In 1953, Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-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 predominantly about white characters. Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental worksdealing 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's lengthy essay Down at the Cross (frequently called The Fire Next Time after the title of the book in which it was published) similarly showed the seething discontent of the 1960s in novel form. The essay was originally published in two oversized issues of The New Yorker and landed Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 while Baldwin was touring the South speaking about the restive Civil Rights movement. The essay talked about the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the burgeoning Black Muslim movement. Baldwin's next book-length essay, No Name in the Street, also discussed his own experience in the context of the later 1960s, specifically the assassinations of three of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baldwin's writings of the 1970s and 1980s have been largely overlooked by critics, though even these texts are beginning to receive attention. Eldridge Cleaver's vicious homophobic attack on Baldwin in Soul on Ice and elsewhere and Baldwin's return to southern France contributed to the sense that he was not in touch with his readership. Always true to his own convictions rather than to the tastes of others, Baldwin continued to write what he wanted to write. His two novels written in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head, placed a strong emphasis on the importance of black families, and he concluded his career by publishing a volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues as well as another book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which was an extended meditation inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s.
At age 14, Baldwin joined the Pentecostal Church and became a Pentecostal preacher. The difficulties of life, as well as his abusive stepfather, who was a preacher, delivered him to the church. During a euphoric prayer meeting, Baldwin converted, and soon became junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He drew larger crowds than his father did.
Baldwin was recorded singing "Precious Lord", a gospel song by Thomas A. Dorsey. And although he criticized Christianity for, as he explained, reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression, he praised religion for inspiring some American blacks to defy oppression. Baldwin once wrote, "If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him." Despite this sentiment, Baldwin never referred to himself as an atheist.
Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).By the Spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover.
Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, with Belafonte and long time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church not long after the March on Washington, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this "terrifying crisis."
National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1956
Ford Foundation Grant, 1959
Certificate of recognition from the National Conference on Christians and Jews, 1961
In 1961 Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin’s best-se...In 1961 Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin’s best-selling essay collection, was published. It discussed the race issue in the United States and won a certificate of recognition from the National Conference on Christians and Jews and was selected by the Notable Books Council of the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of the year.