James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the Western society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. Some of Baldwin’s essays are book-length, including The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976). An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was expanded and adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film I Am Not Your Negro (2016). One of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film of the same name in 2018, directed and produced by Barry Jenkins.
Baldwin’s novels, short stories, and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures. Themes of masculinity, sexuality, race, and class intertwine to create intricate narratives that run parallel with some of the major political movements toward social change in mid-twentieth-century America, such as the civil rights movement and the gay liberation movement. Baldwin’s protagonists are often but not exclusively African American, and gay and bisexual men frequently feature as protagonists in his literature. These characters often face internal and external obstacles in their search for social- and self-acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, which was written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.
James Arthur Baldwin was born to Emma Berdis Jones who had left Baldwin’s biological father because of his drug abuse. A native of an impoverished community on Deal Island, Maryland, Jones moved to Harlem where Baldwin was born, in Harlem Hospital in New York. Jones married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin with whom she had eight children between 1927 and 1943. Her husband also had a son from a previous marriage who was nine years older than James. The family was poor, and Baldwin’s stepfather, to whom he referred in essays as his father, treated him more harshly than his other children. His intelligence, combined with the persecution he endured in his stepfather’s home, drove Baldwin to spend much of his time alone in libraries.
By the time Baldwin had reached adolescence, he had discovered his passion for writing. His educators deemed him gifted, and in 1937, at the age of 13, he wrote his first article, titled “Harlem—Then and Now”, which was published in his school’s magazine, The Douglass Pilot.
Baldwin spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of the racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His stepfather died of tuberculosis in the summer of 1943, on the day his last child was born, just before Baldwin turned 19. Not only would the day of the funeral be Baldwin’s 19th birthday, it would also be that of the Harlem riot of 1943, an event portrayed at the beginning of his “Notes of a Native Son” essay.
Baldwin 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.” Baldwin attended P.S. 24 on 128th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues in Harlem where he wrote the school song, which was used until the school closed.
As told in “Notes of a Native Son”, when he was 10 years old, Baldwin wrote a play that was directed by a teacher at his school. Seeing his talent and potential, she offered to take him to “real” plays. This provoked a backlash from Baldwin’s stepfather, as the teacher was white. Baldwin’s mother eventually overruled his father, saying “it would not be very nice to let such a kind woman make the trip for nothing.” When his teacher came to pick him up, Baldwin noticed that his stepfather was filled with disgust. Baldwin later realized that this encounter was an “unprecedented and frightening” situation for his parents:
It was clear, during the brief interview in our living room, that my father was agreeing very much against his will and that he would have refused permission if he had dared. The fact that he did not dare caused me to despise him. I had no way of knowing that he was facing in that living room a wholly unprecedented and frightening situation.
His middle-school years were spent at Frederick Douglass Junior High, where he was influenced by poet Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance and was encouraged by his math teacher to serve as editor of the school newspaper, The Douglass Pilot. (Directly preceding him as editors at Frederick Douglass Junior High were Brock Peters, the future actor and Bud Powell, the future jazz pianist.)
He then went on to DeWitt Clinton High School in Bedford Park, in the Bronx. There, along with Richard Avedon, Baldwin worked on the school magazine as literary editor but disliked school because of constant racial slurs.
During his teenage years, Baldwin followed his stepfather’s shadow into the religious life. The difficulties in his life including his stepfather’s abuse led Baldwin to seek consolation in religion. At the age of 14, he attended meetings of the Pentecostal Church and, during a euphoric prayer meeting, he converted and became a junior minister. Before long, at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, he was drawing larger crowds than his stepfather had done in his day. At 17, however, Baldwin had come to view Christianity as based on false premises, considering it hypocritical and racist and later regarded his time in the pulpit as a way of overcoming his personal crises. He left the church although his step-father wanted him to become a preacher.
Baldwin once visited Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, who inquired about Baldwin’s religious beliefs. He answered, “I left the church 20 years ago and haven’t joined anything since.” Elijah asked, “And what are you now?” Baldwin explained, “Now? Nothing. I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.” Still, his church experience significantly shaped his worldview and writing. In his essay The Fire Next Time, Baldwin reflected that “being in the pulpit was like working in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked.”
Baldwin accused Christianity of reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression and delaying salvation until a promised afterlife. Baldwin praised religion, however, for inspiring some Black Americans to defy oppression. He once wrote, “If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can’t do that, it’s time we got rid of him.” Baldwin publicly described himself as non-religious.
Historic Plaque unveiled by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation at 81 Horatio Street, where James Baldwin lived in the late 1950s and early 1960s during one of his most prolific and creative periods
When Baldwin was 15 years old, his high-school running buddy, Emile Capouya, skipped school one day and met Beauford Delaney, a modernist painter, in Greenwich Village. Capouya gave Baldwin Delaney’s address and suggested that he pay him a visit. Baldwin, who at the time worked after school in a sweatshop on nearby Canal Street, visited Delaney at 181 Greene Street. Delaney became a mentor to Baldwin, and, under his influence, Baldwin came to believe a black person could be an artist.
While working odd jobs, Baldwin wrote short stories, essays, and book reviews, some of them later collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955). He befriended actor Marlon Brando in 1944, and the two were roommates for a time. They remained friends for over twenty years.Baldwin and Marlon Brando at the Civil Rights March (1963)
In 1948 New Jersey, Baldwin walked into a restaurant that only served white people. When the waitress refused to serve him, Baldwin threw a glass of water at her which shattered against the mirror behind the bar.
Disillusioned by American prejudice against black people, as well as wanting to see himself and his writing outside of an African-American context, he left the United States at the age of 24 to settle in Paris. Baldwin wanted not to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.” He also hoped to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and escape the hopelessness that many young African-American men like himself succumbed to in New York.
In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. He started to publish his work in literary anthologies, notably Zero which was edited by his friend Themistocles Hoetis and which had already published essays by Richard Wright.
Baldwin lived in France for most of his later life. He also spent some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his lifetime, as well as since his death, Baldwin was seen not only as an influential African-American writer but also as an influential emigrant writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside the United States and the impact of these experiences on his life and his writing.
Baldwin settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1970, in an old Provençal house beneath the ramparts of the famous village. His house was always open to his friends who frequently visited him while on trips to the French Riviera. American painter Beauford Delaney made Baldwin’s house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence his second home, often setting up his easel in the garden. Delaney painted several colorful portraits of Baldwin. Fred Nall Hollis also befriended Baldwin during this time. Actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were also regular house guests.
Many of Baldwin’s musician friends dropped in during the Jazz à Juan and Nice Jazz Festivals. They included Nina Simone, Josephine Baker (whose sister lived in Nice), Miles Davis, and Ray Charles. In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote:
I’d read his books and I liked and respected what he had to say. As I got to know Jimmy we opened up to each other and became real great friends. Every time I went to southern France to play Antibes, I would always spend a day or two out at Jimmy’s house in St. Paul de Vence. We’d just sit there in that great big beautiful house of his telling us all kinds of stories, lying our asses off…. He was a great man.
Baldwin learned to speak French fluently and developed friendships with French actor Yves Montand and French writer Marguerite Yourcenar who translated Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner into French.
The years Baldwin spent in Saint-Paul-de-Vence were also years of work. Sitting in front of his sturdy typewriter, he devoted his days to writing and to answering the huge amount of mail he received from all over the world. He wrote several of his last works in his house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, including Just Above My Head in 1979 and Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985. It was also in his Saint-Paul-de-Vence house that Baldwin wrote his famous “Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis” in November 1970.
Following Baldwin’s death in 1987, a court battle began over the ownership of his home. Baldwin had been in the process of purchasing his house from his landlady, Mlle. Jeanne Faure. At the time of his death, Baldwin did not have full ownership of the home, although it was still Mlle. Faure’s intention that the home would stay in the family. His home, nicknamed “Chez Baldwin,” has been the center of scholarly work and artistic and political activism. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has an online exhibit titled “Chez Baldwin” which uses his historic French home as a lens to explore his life and legacy. Magdalena J. Zaborowska’s 2018 book, Me and My House: James Baldwin’s Last Decade in France, uses photographs of his home and his collections to discuss themes of politics, race, queerness, and domesticity.
Over the years, several efforts were initiated to save the house and convert it into an artist residency. None had the endorsement of the Baldwin estate. In February 2016, Le Monde published an opinion piece by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a contemporary Black American expatriate writer in France, which spurred a group of activists to come together in Paris. In June 2016, American writer and activist Shannon Cain squatted at the house for 10 days in an act of political and artistic protest. Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin, a French organization whose initial goal was to purchase the house by launching a capital campaign funded by the U.S. philanthropic sector, grew out of this effort. This campaign was unsuccessful without the support of the Baldwin Estate. Attempts to engage the French government in conservation of the property were dismissed by the mayor of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Joseph Le Chapelain whose statement to the local press claiming “nobody’s ever heard of James Baldwin” mirrored those of Henri Chambon, the owner of the corporation that razed his home. Construction was completed in 2019 on the apartment complex that now stands where Chez Baldwin once stood.
Baldwin’s first published work, a review of the writer Maxim Gorky, appeared in The Nation in 1947. He continued to publish in that magazine at various times in his career and was serving on its editorial board at his death in 1987. Café de Flore, boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, May 2019 – Here in the large upstairs heated room (SALLE AU 1er – CLIMATISÉE) in 1952 Baldwin worked on his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
In 1953, Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman was published. He began writing it when he was only seventeen and first published it in Paris. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. He 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, caused great controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin again resisted labels with the publication of this work. Despite the reading public’s expectations that he would publish works dealing with African American experiences, Giovanni’s Room is predominantly about white characters. Baldwin photographed by Allan Warren
Baldwin’s third and fourth novels, Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters, as well as with heterosexual, gay, and bisexual characters.
Baldwin’s lengthy essay “Down at the Cross” (frequently called The Fire Next Time after the title of the 1963 book in which it was published) similarly showed the seething discontent of the 1960s in novel form. The essay was originally published in two oversized issues of The New Yorker and landed Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 while he was touring the South speaking about the restive Civil Rights Movement. Around the time of publication of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin became a known spokesperson for civil rights and a celebrity noted for championing the cause of Black Americans. He frequently appeared on television and delivered speeches on college campuses. The essay talked about the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the burgeoning Black Muslim movement. After publication, several Black nationalists criticized Baldwin for his conciliatory attitude. They questioned whether his message of love and understanding would do much to change race relations in America. The book was consumed by whites looking for answers to the question: What do Black Americans really want? Baldwin’s essays never stopped articulating the anger and frustration felt by real-life Black Americans with more clarity and style than any other writer of his generation.
1970s and 1980s
Baldwin’s next book-length essay, No Name in the Street (1972), also discussed his own experience in the context of the later 1960s, specifically the assassinations of three of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baldwin’s writings of the 1970s and 1980s have been largely overlooked by critics, though even these texts are beginning to receive attention. Several of his essays and interviews of the 1980s discuss homosexuality and homophobia with fervor and forthrightness. Eldridge Cleaver’s harsh criticism of Baldwin in Soul on Ice and elsewhere and Baldwin’s return to southern France contributed to the sense that he was not in touch with his readership. Always true to his own convictions rather than to the tastes of others, Baldwin continued to write what he wanted to write. As he had been the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, he became an inspirational figure for the emerging gay rights movement. His two novels written in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) and Just Above My Head (1979), placed a strong emphasis on the importance of Black American families. He concluded his career by publishing a volume of poetry, Jimmy’s Blues (1983), as well as another book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), an extended meditation inspired by the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s. Baldwin also earned many Fellowships to MacDowell.