James Baldwin was born on this day in 1924 (to December 1, 1987). He was an important 20th Century novelist, writer, playwright, poet, social critic, essayist and civil rights activist who offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and '60s.
James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, the eldest of nine children born to Emma Berdis Jones. He would never know who his biological father was. At a very young age, his mother married David Baldwin, a factory worker as well as a preacher who would later adopt him. Baldwin was an avid reader, and said that he began plotting novels at about the time he learned to read. He attended the prestigious, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where, along with Richard Avedon, he worked on the school magazine. After high school, Baldwin studied at The New School. James Baldwin’s stepfather was a minister and at the age of 14, he became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. After he graduated from high school, he left Harlem for the bohemian utopia of lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
At 17, Baldwin came to view Christianity as falsely premised, and later regarded his time in the pulpit as a remedy to his personal crisis. Still, his church experience significantly shaped his worldview and writing. Critics frequently note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are often evident in his prose.
As an openly gay man, James Baldwin became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people. He was one of the first openly gay, black celebrities in the 1950s and ‘60s and was both vilified and adored for his outspoken honesty.
His first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, appeared in 1953 to excellent reviews and immediately was recognized as establishing a profound and permanent new voice in American letters. Baldwin's play “The Amen Corner” was first performed at Howard University in 1955, and his acclaimed collection of essays “Notes of a Native Son”, was published the same year. A second collection of essays, “Nobody Knows My Name”, was published in 1961 between his novels “Giovanni's Room” in 1956, and “Another Country” in 1961.
Baldwin’s second novel, “Giovanni's Room” is noteworthy for bringing complex representations of homosexuality to a reading public with empathy and artistry, which fostered a broader public discourse on issues regarding same-sex desire. The book was considered too risqué by American publishers, and originally was published in Europe, where it was an instant hit.
The appearance of “The Fire Next Time” in 1963, just as the civil rights movement was exploding across the American South, galvanized the nation and continues to reverberate as perhaps the most prophetic and defining statement ever written of the continuing costs of Americans' refusal to face their own history. It became a national bestseller, and Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1964, “Blues for Mister Charlie”, his play based on the murder of a young black man in Mississippi, was produced by the Actors Studio in New York. That same year, Baldwin was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and collaborated with the photographer Richard Avedon on “Nothing Personal”, a series of portraits of America intended as a eulogy for the slain Merger Evers.
A collection of short stories, “Going to Meet the Man”, was published in 1965, and in 1968, “Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone”, his last novel of the 1960s was published, among many other noted pieces and collections.
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, he left the United States and departed for Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American bigotry but to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context and to be read as not "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer". He would live as an expatriate in France for most of his later life.
Baldwin was made a Commander of the French Legion of Honor in June of 1986. Among the other awards he received are a Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Trust Award, a Rosenwald fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, a Partisan Review fellowship, and a Ford Foundation grant.
James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987 at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in France. He was buried at Ferncliff Cemetery in the Westchester community of Hartsdale, New York.
The impact of James Baldwin’s passionate and eloquent voice cannot be overlooked. He is widely considered one of the greatest writers of his generation. His thoughts and words still resonate with readers around the world. But for same-gender loving men and women of African descent, he represents a revolutionary voice of defiance and distain for the racism and homophobia of America. His bravery in being one of the first black intellectuals and artist to be publicly out has not gone un-noticed. He has come to be viewed as an inspiring muse, a wise teacher, and an uncompromising voice in the struggle for fairness, justice and equality.
As the world observes the 90th anniversary of his birth, tributes, academic conferences and readings of his powerful words continue to have an impact on our world. We remember James Baldwin on this day in celebration of the 90th anniversary of his birth, and in appreciation for his powerful writing and commentary, his advocacy for Civil Rights, and his many contributions to our community.