James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. Baldwin’s essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, written well before gay equality was widely espoused in America: Giovanni’s Room (1956). Baldwin’s best-known novel is his first, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
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 stepfather died of tuberculosis in summer of 1943 soon before James turned 19. The day of the funeral was James’s 19th birthday, his father’s last child was born, and Harlem rioted, the portrait opening his essay “Notes of a Native Son”. The quest to answer or explain familial and social repudiation—and attain a sense of self, both coherent and benevolent—became a motif in Baldwin’s writing.
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin started to realize that he was gay. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and gays, Baldwin left the United States and settled in Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice. He fled in order 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”. Also, he left the United States desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York.
He would live in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his life and after it, Baldwin would be seen not only as an influential African American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside of the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin’s life and his writing.
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 deal with with black and white characters and with heterosexual, gay, 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 returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 while the Civil Rights Act of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, N.C., and Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv had suggested he report on what was happening in the American south. Baldwin was nervous about the trip but he made it, interviewing people in Charlotte, Atlanta (where he met Martin Luther King), and Montgomery, Alabama. The result was two essays, one published in Harper’s magazine (“The Hard Kind of Courage”), the other in Partisan Review (“Nobody Knows My Name”).
While he wrote about the movement, Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963 he conducted a lecture tour of the South for CORE, traveling to locations like Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the tour, he lectured to students, white liberals, and anyone else listening about his racial ideology, an ideological position between the “muscular approach” of Malcolm X and the nonviolent program of Martin Luther King Jr.
Nonetheless, he rejected the label civil rights activist, or that he had participated in a civil rights movement, instead agreeing with Malcolm X’s assertion that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one’s civil rights. In a 1979 speech at UC Berkeley, he called it, instead, “the latest slave rebellion.”
In 1968, Baldwin signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.