James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York's
Harlem, the illegitimate son of a domestic worker. When he was
three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard, cruel man who was
also a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname of his
stepfather, who died in a mental hospital in 1943.
Throughout his childhood, Baldwin was a voracious reader.
When he was 12, his first story appeared in a church newspaper.
At the age of 14, Baldwin discovered relief from his poor
surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted and served
in the church as a minister for the next three years. It was his experience
in delivering sermons that inspired his famous 1953 work, Go Tell It on
the Mountain, about a young minister named John Grimes. At the age
of 17, Baldwin left home. After being graduated from high school, he
worked in several low-level jobs while beginning his literary
In middle school, Baldwin had taken French
classes from poet Countee Cullen, who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance
in the 1920s. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948, where he wrote the
famous essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955). He lived
there for a decade before traveling to London and Istanbul in order to escape the racism he
experienced in the United States. He finally returned to America in 1957 to get
involved in the southern school desegregation struggle, speaking
passionately in support of civil rights and organizing protests. He
warned that, until white America changed its attitudes toward blacks,
violence would rain across the land. His activities made him a target of FBI
investigations, ultimately leading the organization to compile a 1,750-page
dossier on the author.
In his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin
exposed a man's struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator,
tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American
who falls in love with
Giovanni, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella, his
"But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts,"
Baldwin wrote, "their lovers and friends, any more than they can invent their
parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great
difficulty is to say Yes to life."
Nobody Knows My Name (1962), a collections of essays,
explored black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner's views on
segregation, and Richard Wright's work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin
when he was an aspiring writer, although the two never became close.
music often played a pivotal role in Baldwin's life, the author had not moved it to
the forefront of his writings until Just above My Head (1979), his sixth and longest
novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends who began
preaching and singing in Harlem churches. In the book, Hall Montana tells
the story of the decline of the gospel-singing career of his brother Arthur.
His next book,
Evidence of Things Seen (1983), is an account of the unsolved murders
of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. Although the
ambitious work was written
mostly as an assignment for Playboy, critics panned it
when it appeared as a book, calling it superficial--a charge that Baldwin was forced to deal with
throughout his literary life.
In 1983, Baldwin accepted a position as a college professor in the
Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at
Amherst. Shortly thereafter, he moved to St. Paul de Venice on the
French Riviera, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.
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