Early Years and Education
James Baldwin was born the illegitimate son of Emma Berdis Jones on August 2, 1924, in Harlem Hospital. In James’s third year, his mother married the Reverend David Baldwin, a fire and brimstone lay preacher, who legally adopted James.
James attended Public School 24 in Harlem, where he met a young white teacher named Orilla Miller. Nicknamed “Bill” by the young Baldwin, Miller was to have a profound effect on Baldwin’s life. She directed his first play and encouraged his talents. The two discussed literature and went to museums together. Miller even won David Baldwin’s permission to take James to the theater, an activity strictly forbidden by the elder Baldwin. Later, James was to give credit to Bill for her lack of racism. He explained that it was “certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people.”
After elementary school, Baldwin went on to Frederic Douglas Junior high. It was here that he met Countee Cullen (an American poet) and Herman W. Porter, both of whom were teachers at the school during the years that Baldwin attended, and both would have a lasting impact on his life. Cullen encouraged James to participate in the school’s literary club, which he was the founder and advisor of. Baldwin was enchanted by Cullen’s warmth and openness, and soon Cullen became a father figure to the troubled and lonely youth.
Porter was in charge of The Douglas Pilot, the school magazine, and made Baldwin the editor of the publication to which he would also contribute. Porter introduced James to the public library and taught him how to overcome the racial slurs and hostility that he sometimes encountered there. These two teachers and role models had a profound impact on Baldwin’s life by showing him that black men could be successful, educated, and strong.
In the summer of 1938, James experienced a religious conversion and began preaching. Standing in the pulpit, he was overcome with a sense of wonder and power in the art of rhetoric. The speaking skills that he developed as a minister would later serve him well in his vocation as a writer. More immediately, however, James found that his position as minister gave him power at home. He soon began to openly defy his father, who was forced to surrender now that his son was also a member of the ministry. For instance, when David suggested that James find a job and quit school, the younger Baldwin refused, opting to continue on to high school.
Luckily James had taken the advice of Countee Cullen and applied for admittance to the prestigious De Witt Clinton High School, from which scores of successful and famous people had graduated. His classmates were mainly white, but they came from liberal families who were more interested in James’s talent than his skin tone. Here he formed close ties with other students with whom he worked on The Magpie, the school’s newspaper.
At 16, James left the ministry because of what he perceived as hypocrisy and racism, which had destroyed his faith in the church. This split had its beginnings when James met Beauford Delany. A mutual friend had introduced the two at a point when James was very depressed and confused. Delany, an artist, was perhaps the most influential person in Baldwin’s life. He introduced the young man to music, took him to galleries, taught Baldwin to think like an artist, and showed him that it was possible to make a living at it.
Early Career and Writing
After graduation, Baldwin found it necessary to find full time employment so that he could support himself. He moved in with a friend but was forced to return home when he was fired from his job. When he returned home, he found his mother pregnant and his father in the hospital due to his deteriorating mental capacity. The last Baldwin baby, Paula, was born on July 29, 1943. It was on the same day that his father passed away. James and Beuford scraped together enough money for a funeral service, held on James’s birthday.
Baldwin continued to live at home in an attempt to support his family but was unable to keep a job. Resentment at his responsibilities to his family precluding the chance of his success as a writer became unbearable. He moved out and found work in Greenwich Village. A restaurant owner named Connie Williams, who was sympathetic to Baldwin’s plight, took the young man under her wing and employed him as a waiter. She often let him stay at her apartment and gave him food for his family.
During this period, Baldwin met many artists and writers who frequented William’s restaurant. He also began his search for his sexual identity by having a number of one-night affairs with men but also continuing to have relationships with women. He met and fell in love with a man named Eugene Worth. Afraid of loosing a friendship by revealing his true feelings, Baldwin never expressed his love. Unfortunately, Worth committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after making an oblique comment about the possibility that he was in love with Baldwin. James never recovered from the loss of his friend.
It was also during this time that Baldwin began to write seriously. A young woman who had been impressed by Baldwin’s reading of his manuscript In My Father’s House (a precursor to Go Tell It on the Mountain) introduced him to the American novelist Richard Wright. Wright was also impressed with the work of the younger man and helped to secure for him a Eugene F. Saxon Foundation Fellowship. The fellowship, which included $500, was awarded to Baldwin in November of 1945. Unfortunately, In My Father’s House was not deemed worthy of being published, and Baldwin was depressed and fearful that he had not lived up to the Wright’s expectations.
In 1947, Baldwin was finally published professionally; however, it wasn’t a novel but a book review that launched his writing career. This book review was followed by a number of essays. His first work of fiction was published in October of 1948. A proposed project with a photographer friend about Harlem churches won Baldwin a Rosenwald fellowship. Though the project was never completed, it did give Baldwin the money needed to make his long dreamed of trip to Paris. Ironically, it was in Paris that Baldwin came to understand himself, his homeland, and his culture.
Although an expatriate writer, Baldwin remained active in events that shaped American culture. He divided his time between Europe and the United States, and his role in the Civil Rights movement cannot be overlooked. He met with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and a host of other politically active notables in an effort to bring about constructive social change. His beliefs on race and race relations would color many of his novels and inspire a large percentage of his essays.
Major Literary Works
Baldwin was a proficient writer. He produced scores of reviews, essays, plays, short stories, and novels. The following is a short list of what is widely regarded as his most important works and a short description of their content or significance.
Baldwin wrote “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949) shortly after his arrival in Paris. The essay attacked the ideology traditionally found in protest novels. Many, including Richard Wright, saw the article as a personal attack on Wright and his works. Not surprisingly, this caused a rift, but not a break, in the friendship between the two authors.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, which Baldwin had worked on for years under various titles, was finally finished during a trip to Switzerland. When New York publisher Alfred Knopf expressed interest in publishing the work, Baldwin returned to America on a ticked bought with a loan from Marlon Brando. His novel was published a year later in 1953 and received rave reviews.
It was in Paris that his next work, The Amen Corner (1954), was published. A novel about a young man who leaves his home and church to become a musician and find himself can be seen as a continuation of Mountain and, like his previous novel, is partially autobiographical.
Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of Baldwin’s essays from 1948 to 1955, was his next major work. Some pieces like “Everybody’s Protest Novel” had been previously published, but others were seen for the first time in this publication.
Giovanni’s Room (1956) tells the story of David, an American living in Paris who falls in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni. In an attempt to deny the true nature of his sexuality, the protagonist proposes to an American girl and leaves Giovanni, who, jilted, commits a murder and is executed. The woman leaves David when it becomes clear that their relationship is a failure, and David returns to his past life, full of anguish for his lost Giovanni. Baldwin was nervous before the publication of this novel because he saw that, with its publication, he would no longer be able to hide the fact of his own homosexuality from his family, and he feared their rejection.
“Sonny’s Blues” (1957) is the story of two brothers. Sonny is a musician who is also a heroin addict. His brother, instilled with a feeling of responsibility for his sibling by their mother, tries to understand Sonny and his addiction.
Another Country (1962) tells the story of a Jazz musician who is deeply hurt by racism and thus unable to trust anyone and so unable to give or accept love.
Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) tells the tale of a young man from Harlem and his rise to fame as an actor. It chronicles the events of his life and his struggles with his sexuality and lovers.
The relationship between two lovers and their families is the focus of If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). The novel concerns the hypocrisy found in the church and relationships between family members — especially sisters, who for the first time make a serious appearance in Baldwin’s work.
In Just Above My Head (1979), the narrator, Hal, tells the story of a dearly loved brother and a happy childhood. The Millers, friends of Hal’s family, were not so lucky. Mrs. Miller died when their daughter Julia, a successful child-preacher, was 14 years old. To escape her brutal and sexually abusive father, Julia becomes a prostitute. Through a seemingly endless string of trials, Hal and Julia settle down in neighboring towns to enjoy middle age and middle class. It is one of Baldwin’s sermons on the importance of choosing love over security.
During the 1980’s, Baldwin taught classes at the University of Amherst. His courses included a history of the Civil Rights movement and classes on expatriate writers like himself.
In addition to living in Paris, Baldwin also spent time in Switzerland and Istanbul and traveled to Africa and the Soviet Union. It was in St. Paul de Vence that Baldwin was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He passed away on November 30, 1987, surrounded by family and loving friends.
Throughout his life, Baldwin was recognized not only for his achievements in literature but also for his work in the Civil Rights struggle and for his efforts to facilitate understanding and respect between all people. Private institutions, public organizations, and government agencies all chose to honor him in their own ways:
1945 Eugene F. Saxon Fellowship
1948 Rosenwald Fellowship
1954 Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacDowell Colony Fellowship
1956 Partisan Review Fellowship and a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
1959 Ford Foundation Grant
1961 Certificate of Recognition from the National Conference on Christians and Jews
1963 George Polk Memorial Award
1964 Honorary Degree from City University of New York
1965 Martin Luther King Memorial medal and an Honorary Degree from the University of Massachusetts
1981 Best Nonfiction Award from Playboy Magazine
1982 French Legion of Honor from Francois Mitterrand