The author James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) achieved international recognition for his bold expressions of African American life in the United States.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924, the oldest of nine children. His father was a lay preacher in the Holiness-Pentecostal sect, and at the age of 14 Baldwin was also ordained a preacher. At 18 he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, and in 1944 he met Richard Wright, who helped secure a fellowship that allowed Baldwin the financial freedom to devote himself solely to literature. By 1948 Baldwin had concluded that the social tenor of the United States was stifling his creativity, and he went to Europe with the financial assistance of a Rosenwald fellowship. In Europe, Baldwin completed Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni's Room (1956).
Spokesperson for Civil Rights Movement
Returning to the United States after nine years abroad, Baldwin became known as the most eloquent literary spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans. A popular speaker on the lecture circuit, Baldwin quickly discovered that social conditions for African Americans had become even more bleak while he was abroad. As the 1960s began—and violence in the South escalated—he became increasingly outraged. Baldwin responded with three powerful books of essays: Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), in which he all but predicts the outbursts of black anger to come, and More Notes of a Native Son. These highly inflammatory works were accompanied by Another Country (1962), his third novel. Going to Meet the Man (1965) is a group of cogent short stories of the same period. During this time Baldwin's commentary to Richard Avedon's photography was published under the title Nothing Personal (1964), and four years later came another novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.
In addition, the mid-1960s saw Baldwin's two published plays produced on Broadway. The Amen Corner, first staged in Washington, D.C., in 1955, was mounted at New York City's Ethel Barrymore Theatre in April 1965. Similar in tone to Go Tell It on the Mountain, it communicates the religious emotion of the Holiness-Pentecostal sect. Blues for Mr. Charlie, which premiered at Broadway's ANTA Theatre in April 1964, is based on the Emmett Till murder case.
The assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends—civil rights marcher Medgar Evers, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and the black Muslim leader Malcolm X— shattered any hopes Baldwin maintained for racial reconciliation in the United States, and he returned to France in the early 1970s. His subsequent works of fiction include If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979). Nonfiction writings of this period include No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), an examination of African Americans in the motion picture industry, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), a consideration of racial issues surrounding the Atlanta child murders of 1979 and 1980. A volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues was issued in 1985.
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. Two of his best-known works, the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain and the play The Amen Corner were inspired by his years with the Pentecostal church in Harlem. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, for instance, a teenaged boy struggles with a repressive stepfather and experiences a charismatic spiritual awakening. Later Baldwin novels deal frankly with homosexuality and interracial love affairs— love in both its sexual and spiritual forms became an essential component of the quest for self-realization for both Baldwin and his characters.
Themes and Techniques
Baldwin's prose is characterized by a style of beauty and telling power. His language seems deliberately chosen to shock and disturb, arouse, repel, and finally shake the reader out of complacency into a concerned state of action. His major themes are repeated: the terrible pull of love and hate between black and white Americans; the constant war in one possessed by inverted sexuality between guilt or shame and ecstatic abandon; and such moral, spiritual, and ethical values as purity of motive and inner wholeness, the gift of sharing and extending love, the charm of goodness versus evil. He tunes an inner ear to the disturbing social upheaval of contemporary life and to the rewarding ecstasy of artistic achievement. All such positive values are set in continual warfare against racism, industrialism, materialism, and a global power struggle. Everything demeaning to the human spirit is attacked with vigor and righteous indignation.
Baldwin remained abroad much of the last 15 years of his life, but he never gave up his American citizenship. The citizens of France nevertheless embraced Baldwin as one of their own, and in 1986 he was accorded one of the country's highest accolades when he was named Commander of the Legion of Honor. He died of stomach cancer, November 30, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vance, France, and was buried in Harlem. One of his last works to see publication during his lifetime was a well-regarded anthology of essays The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985.
Further Reading on James Arthur Baldwin
Biographical studies include David Adams Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography (1994) and William J. Weather by, James Baldwin: Artist on Fire (1989). Aspects of Baldwin's writings are examined in such studies as Bryan R. Washington, The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin (1995), R. Jothiprakash, Commitment as a Theme in African American Literature: A Study of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (1994), Jean-Francois Gounard, The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin (1992), and Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin (1989).