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James Arthur Baldwin Edit Profile

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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.

Background

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.

Education

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.

Career

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.

Achievements

  • Baldwin's greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to address American race relations from a psychological perspective. In his essays and fiction he explored the implications of racism for both the oppressed and the oppressor, suggesting repeatedly that all people suffer in a racist climate. Baldwin's fiction and plays also explore the burdens a callous society can impose on a sensitive individual.

Works

  • essay

    • Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son(1961)

    • A Talk to Teachers(1963)

  • essays

    • Notes of a Native Son(1955)

    • The Fire Next Time(1963)

    • No Name in the Street(1972)

    • The Devil Finds Work(1976)

    • The Evidence of Things Not Seen(1985)

    • The Price of the Ticket(1985)

  • novel

    • Go Tell It on the Mountain(1953)

    • Giovanni's Room(1956)

    • Another Country(1962)

    • Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone(1968)

    • If Beale Street Could Talk(1974)

    • Just Above My Head91979)

    • Harlem Quartet (1987)

  • photo book

    • Nothing Personal (with Richard Avedon, photography) (1964)

  • play

    • The Amen Corner(1954)

    • Blues for Mister Charlie(1964)

  • poems

    • Jimmy's Blues(1983)

  • stories

    • Going to Meet the Man(1965)

Religion

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.

Politics

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."

Interests

  • Other Interests

    Social and political activism

Connections

mother:
Emma Berdis Jones

His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, gave birth to James while she was single.

stepfather:
David Baldwin

When Baldwin was a toddler, Jones married David Baldwin, an itinerant preacher from Louisiana, who would prove to be the bane of young Jimmy's existence.