Weekend Writing: Celebrating James Baldwin

There are very few literary voices as articulate as American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Yesterday marked the 95th anniversary of the literary figure's birthday, so I'm celebrating him this weekend on the blog in order to recognize Baldwin's remarkable voice, but also his contribution to society.

Born on August 2, 1924, in Manhattan, New York City, NY, Baldwin was raised in Harlem by his mother, who left his father [who Baldwin never met] because of his drug abuse. When he was three years old, his mother married Baptist minister David Baldwin and James Baldwin took his stepfather's last name [who he always considered his father, not stepfather]. Even though he had a strained relationship with his stepdad, Baldwin followed in his footsteps and served as a youth minister during his teenage years.

However, Baldwin couldn't--no, wouldn't--ignore his love for reading and writing. Developing a passion at a young age, Baldwin worked on his high school's magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. Baldwin would often spend his free time alone at a library, learning as much as he could from reading books.

A young James Baldwin (photo/theparisreview.org).

Baldwin obviously faced many obstacles, but he overcame them. He said, "I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn't know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use." His school teachers recognized his talent, hoping he would use his talent in the future.

He did just that. As a teenager, Baldwin began publishing numerous poems, short stories, and plays in his high school's magazine. His early work already showed a level of sophistication others couldn't reach. After graduating high school in 1942, Baldwin had plans to attend college, but he had to put those plans on hold to support his family. He worked for the U.S. Army, laying railroad tracks in New Jersey. During this time, he encountered discrimination everywhere he went--being turned away from bars, restaurants, and he was even fired from his job. He struggled to find work and he didn't know what to do.

In 1943, Baldwin's stepfather passed away from tuberculosis. He moved to Greenwich Village, a popular village with artists and writers. Baldwin decided he wanted to become a novelist, so he started working on a novel. He befriended fellow African-American novelist Richard Wright, who would become a loyal supporter of Baldwin's writing. Wright [author of Native Son] helped Baldwin land a writing fellowship in 1945, because he knew Baldwin was struggling to find money to support his writing career. The young writer started publishing essays and short stories in national publications, including The Nation, Partisan Review, and others. Many of these essays and short stories would later be compiled together in his 1955 collection, Notes of a Native Son.

James Baldwin's 1955 collection of essays, "Notes of a Native Son" (Wikipedia).

However, in 1948, Baldwin made one of the bravest decisions of his life--moving to Paris, France on another writing fellowship. Yes, Baldwin wanted to write more independently, but the decision derived mostly from Baldwin's lack of security in the United States. By this time, Baldwin no longer felt safe in America as a young African-American man. He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see where his writing would take him when he wasn't influenced by American societal standards.

"Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly...I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both." - James Baldwin 

Baldwin's experience in Paris also helped him come to terms with his sexuality. During his teenage years, he started to realize he was homosexual. In Paris, Baldwin could finally be "free." He could escape the hopelessness that many young African-American men like himself faced in New York.

In 1953, Baldwin published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a novel recognized as his most prolific work. The loosely autobiographical novel explores the life of a young African-American man growing up in Harlem, who grapples with a strained relationship with his father, but also his religion. Baldwin commented, "Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father."

James Baldwin's 1953 novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (photo/Amazon.com).

In 1954, Baldwin published his next novel, Giovanni's Room. The novel focuses on the life of a young African-American man living in Paris, who explores his sexuality, a taboo subject back then. His next two novels, Another Country [1962] and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone [1968], were experimental works focusing on black and white characters, but also heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters.

Baldwin boldly provided an unflinching look at the African-American experience in the United States, seen in his essays, including Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son [1961]. The latter work sold more than a million copies, and Baldwin emerged as a leading voice in the Civil Rights Movement for his compelling work on race.

In 1963, there was a noted change in Baldwin's writing with The Fire Next Time, a collection of essays that was meant to educate white Americans on what it meant to be black. The collection offered white readers a view of themselves through the eyes of the African-American community. However, Baldwin also offered a brutally realistic picture of race relations, while also remaining hopeful for possible improvements.

He wrote, "If we...do not falter in our duty now, we may be able...to end the racial nightmare." Not everyone appreciated Baldwin's bold statement, but perhaps that's the point of writing about difficult subjects: to explore new ideas and to make people think, even if they do not want to learn about it.

James Baldwin (photo/The Writing Cooperative)

Baldwin continued to reflect on African-American relations and news, including his 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie, which was loosely based on the 1955 racially motivated murder of Emmett Till. The same year, Baldwin wrote, along with his friend Richard Avedon, a novel, Nothing Personal, which was a tribute to slain civil rights movement leader Medgar Evers. Around this time, Baldwin also published a collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man. 

In his 1968 novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, Baldwin returned to several of his original, popular themes--sexuality, family, and the African-American experience. By the early 1970s, however, Baldwin was in even more despair over America's racial situation. In the 1960s, he witnessed so much violence in the Civil Rights Movement, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He decided he had to focus on the racial situations in his writing. His 1972 book-length essay, No Name in the Street, discussed the assassinations of his three close friends: King, Evers, and Malcolm X.

Baldwin's 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, placed a strong emphasis on the importance of African-American families. The novel was adapted into a beautiful, impressive film in 2018. The novel was followed up with his 1979 novel, Just Above My Head, also discussing African-American families.

James Baldwin (photo/WBUR)

Baldwin's literary fame began to fade in the late 1970s and early '80s. He continued to produce new works, including a collection of poems, Jimmy's Blues: Selected Poems. In the '80s, he remained an astute observer of race and American culture. He shared his experience and views as a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Hampshire College.

On December 1, 1987, Baldwin passed away from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. At the time of his death, Baldwin had an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Evers, Malcolm X, and King. The manuscript eventually formed the basis for Raoul Peck's 2016 documentary film, I Am Not Your Negro. 

Baldwin's legacy remains prevalent in literary discussions. Critics praise the writer's style and themes. His short stories, novels, and plays shed the light of reality upon the darkness of our illusions, while his essays bring a boldness and courage to bear on the most critical questions of humanity. His prose is clear, responsive to American society, and Baldwin had a constant concern for African-American culture.

James Baldwin (photo/LHS Writing Center)

Baldwin was dramatic, compelling, and he had a complete evolution as a writer--first writing about religion, family, sexuality, and then America's racial divide. His works repeatedly educate readers about American society and shed light on concepts we sometimes are afraid to confront. For that, Baldwin will always be relevant as a strong, articulate voice in literary history. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't have some of the most beautiful works in multicultural, African-American literature.

His writing was important in the 1950s and '60s, and we still need his work in 2019. We will always need James Baldwin's voice, and that will never change.




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