James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, Aug. 2, 1924. The eldest of nine children, his stepfather was a minister, and at age 14 , Baldwin became a preacher himself at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem.
After he graduated from high school, he moved to Greenwich Village and in 1940, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. However, the the impassioned cadences of Black churches are evident in all his works. Go Tell It On The Mountain, his first novel, published in 1953, is equal parts novel and an autobiographical account of his youth.
His essay collections–Notes of a Native Son, 1955, Nobody Knows My Name, 1961, and The Fire Next Time, 1963, were influential in informing a large white audience of what it meant to be black in America. Although Baldwin was not actually part of the Harlem Renaissance, growing up in Harlem in the 20s and 30s he was influenced by the explosion of art, literature and music of black America. He offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and ’60s.
After 1948, Baldwin made his home primarily in the south of France, but often returned to the United States to lecture or teach. In 1957, he began spending half of each year in New York City, where he wrote Giovanni’s Room, about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country, published in 1962, was the story of racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals.
His inclusion of gay themes resulted in a lot of savage criticism from the Black community. Baldwin lived and wrote in a time where gay men did not identify themselves as gay, and where black men most assuredly did not, so his works were harshly criticized by his own community. Eldridge Cleaver, of the Black Panthers, stated the Baldwin’s writing displayed an “agonizing, total hatred of blacks,” when, in fact, Baldwin was simply telling his own story, and the stories of other young black men and women, and white men and women, forced to hide their sexual orientation.
In addition to his novels, James Baldwin wrote several plays. Blues for Mister Charlie, was produced in 1964. Going to Meet the Man in 1965, and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1968, provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people in all his works.
James Baldwin told stories of his life, but in fact he was telling stories of all our lives, no matter the color, the orientation, the gender; his was a voice of equality that rang out when many other voices were silent.
James Baldwin died in France on Nov. 30, 1987.