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This article is about the American writer. For other people with the same name, see James Baldwin (disambiguation).

James Baldwin

Baldwin in 1969

BornJames Arthur Baldwin
(1924-08-02)August 2, 1924
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedDecember 1, 1987(1987-12-01) (aged 63)
Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France
NationalityAmerican
OccupationWriter
Years active1947–85

James Arthur "Jimmy" Baldwin (August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) was an American novelist and social critic. His 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.[1] 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.[2]

Baldwin's novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of African Americans, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals' quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.[3]

Early life[edit]

His mother, Emma Berdis Jones,[4] left his biological father because of his drug abuse.[citation needed] She moved to Harlem, New York, where Baldwin was born, in Harlem Hospital.[4] In New York his mother married a preacher, David Baldwin, with whom she had eight children, born between 1927 and 1943; her husband also had one son from a previous marriage who was nine years older than James.[4] The family was poor,[4] and Baldwin's stepfather was harder on him than on the rest of the children.[4] His unusual intelligence combined with the persecution by his stepfather caused Baldwin to spend much of his time alone in libraries. By the time Baldwin had reached age fourteen, he had discovered his passion for writing. During his young adult years, his talent for language did not go unnoticed. His educators deemed him gifted and in 1937, at the age of thirteen, he wrote his first article, titled, "Harlem—Then and Now", which was published in the school’s magazine,The Douglass Pilot.[5]

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 racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him — by comparison with his siblings - very harshly.

His stepfather died of tuberculosis in summer of 1943 on the day his last child was born, just before Baldwin turned 19. The day of the funeral was Baldwin's 19th birthday and the day of the Harlem riot of 1943, which was portrayed at the beginning of his essay "Notes of a Native Son".[6] The quest to answer or explain family and social rejection—and attain a sense of selfhood, both coherent and benevolent—became a consistent theme in Baldwin's writing.[citation needed]

Education[edit]

Growing up in Harlem, Baldwin faced many obstacles, one of which was his education. "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," he said. (O'Reilly) 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.[7]

As recounted in "Notes of a Native Son", when he was nine and a half 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 caused some backlash from Baldwin's stepfather, because the teacher was white. His uncertainty was ultimately overruled by Baldwin's mother, who said that "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. (O'Reilly)[citation needed]

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.[8] (Directly preceding him at Frederick Douglass were Brock Peters, the future actor, and Bud Powell, the future jazz pianist.[9])

He then went on to DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx's Bedford Park section.[10] There, along with Richard Avedon, Baldwin worked on the school magazine as literary editor, but disliked school because of the constant racial slurs.[11]

Religion[edit]

During his teenage years, Baldwin followed his stepfather's shadow into the religious life. However, he became dissatisfied with ministry, considering it hypocritical and racist, and ultimately left the church. The difficulties of his life, including his stepfather's abuse, led Baldwin to seek solace 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 came to view Christianity as based on false premises and later regarded his time in the pulpit as a way of overcoming his personal crises.[citation needed]

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."[12] Still, his church experience significantly shaped his worldview and writing.[13] 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."[14]

Baldwin accused Christianity of reinforcing the system of American slavery by palliating the pangs of oppression and delaying salvation until a promised afterlife.[15] Baldwin praised religion, however, for inspiring some American blacks to defy oppression.[15] 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."[16] Baldwin publicly described himself as not religious.[17] A recording of him singing "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" a cappella was played at his funeral.[18]

Greenwich Village[edit]

When Baldwin was 15, his high-school running buddy, Emile Capouya, skipped school one day and, in Greenwich Village, met Beauford Delaney, a painter.[19] Capouya gave Baldwin Delaney's address and suggested paying him a visit.[19] Baldwin, who worked at the time 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.[19]

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 the actor Marlon Brando in 1944 and the two were roommates for a time.[20] They remained friends for more than twenty years.

Expatriation[edit]

During his teenage years Baldwin started to realize that he was gay. In 1948, he walked into a restaurant where he knew he would be denied service. When the waitress explained that African Americans were not served there, Baldwin threw a glass of water at her, shattering the mirror behind the bar.[21] Disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks, he left the United States at the age of 24 and settled in Paris, France. He wanted to distance himself from American prejudice and see himself and his writing outside an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer".[22] 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.[23]

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,[24] which was edited by his friend Themistocles Hoetis and which had already published essays by Richard Wright.

He lived in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey.[25][26] During his life and after it, Baldwin was seen not only as an influential African-American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin's life and his writing.

Saint-Paul-de-Vence[edit]

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.[27] 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. Actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were also regular house guests.

Many of Baldwin's musician friends dropped in during the Nice and Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festivals: Nina Simone, Josephine Baker (whose sister lived in Nice), Miles Davis, and Ray Charles, for whom he wrote several songs.[28] In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote:

I'd read his books and I liked and respected what he had to say. When I got to know him better, Jimmy and I opened up to each other. We became great friends. Every time I was in the South of France, in Antibes, I would spend a day or two at his villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. We'd get comfy in that beautiful, big house and he would tell us all sorts of stories...He was a great man.[29]

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.

His years in Saint-Paul-de-Vence were also years of work. Sitting in front of his sturdy typewriter, his days were devoted 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"[30] in November 1970.

Literary career[edit]

Baldwin's first published work, a review of the writer Maxim Gorky, appeared in The Nation in 1947.[31][32] 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.[32]

In 1953, Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, was published. 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.[33] Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work:[34] 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.[34] Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works[35] dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, gay, and bisexual characters.[36]

Baldwin's lengthy essay "Down at the Cross" (frequently called The Fire Next Time after the title of the book in which it was published)[37] 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 Baldwin 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.[38] 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.[38] The book was eagerly consumed by whites looking for answers to the question: What do blacks 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.[39] Baldwin's next book-length essay, No Name in the Street, 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.[40] Several of his essays and interviews of the 1980s discuss homosexuality and homophobia with fervor and forthrightness.[38]Eldridge Cleaver's harsh criticism of Baldwin in Soul on Ice and elsewhere[41] 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.[38] His two novels written in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head, placed a strong emphasis on the importance of Black American families. He concluded his career by publishing a volume of poetry, Jimmy's Blues, as well as another book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which was an extended meditation inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s.

Social and political activism[edit]

Baldwin returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 while civil rights legislation of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl, Dorothy Counts, braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, 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 (where he met Martin Luther King Jr.), 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"). Subsequent Baldwin articles on the movement appeared in Mademoiselle, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, where in 1962 he published the essay that he called "Down at the Cross" and the New Yorker called "Letter from a Region of My Mind". Along with a shorter essay from The Progressive, the essay became The Fire Next Time.[42]

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). Joining CORE gave him the opportunity to travel across the American South lecturing on his views of racial inequality. Baldwin became so involved in the movement that he was featured on the cover of Time for their Spring release on May 17, 1963. His insights into both the North and South gave him a unique perspective on the racial problems the United States was facing.

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.[44] Baldwin expressed the hope that socialism would take root in the United States.[45]

By the spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover.[clarification needed] "There is not another writer," said Time, "who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South."[46] In a cable Baldwin sent to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy during the crisis, Baldwin blamed the violence in Birmingham on the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, Mississippi Senator James Eastland, and President Kennedy for failing to use "the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be." Attorney General Kennedy invited Baldwin to meet with him over breakfast, and that meeting was followed up with a second, when Kennedy met with Baldwin and others Baldwin had invited to Kennedy's Manhattan apartment. This meeting is discussed in Howard Simon's 1999 play, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire. The delegation included Kenneth B. Clark, a psychologist who had played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision; actor Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, and activists from civil rights organizations.[47] Although most of the attendees of this meeting left feeling "devastated," the meeting was an important one in voicing the concerns of the civil rights movement and it provided exposure of the civil rights issue not just as a political issue but also as a moral issue.[48]

James Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages of documents, collected from 1960 until the early 1970s.[49] During that era of illegal surveillance of American writers, the FBI accumulated 276 pages on Richard Wright, 110 pages on Truman Capote, and just nine pages on Henry Miller.

Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, with Belafonte and long-time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando.[50] The civil rights movement was hostile to homosexuals. The only known gay men in the movement were James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. Rustin and King were very close, as Rustin received credit for the success of the March on Washington. Many were bothered by Rustin's sexual orientation. King himself spoke on the topic of sexual orientation in a school editorial column during his college years, and in reply to a letter during the 1950s, where he treated it as a mental illness which an individual could overcome. The pressure later resulted in King distancing himself from both men. At the time, Baldwin was neither in the closet nor open to the public about his sexual orientation. Later on, Baldwin was conspicuously uninvited to speak at the end of the March on Washington.[51]

After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church three weeks after the March on Washington, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this "terrifying crisis." He traveled to Selma, Alabama, where SNCC had organized a voter registration drive; he watched mothers with babies and elderly men and women standing in long lines for hours, as armed deputies and state troopers stood by—or intervened to smash a reporter's camera or use cattle prods on SNCC workers. After his day of watching, he spoke in a crowded church, blaming Washington—"the good white people on the hill." Returning to Washington, he told a New York Post reporter the federal government could protect Negroes—it could send federal troops into the South. He blamed the Kennedys for not acting.[52] In March 1965, Baldwin joined marchers who walked 50 miles from Selma, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery under the protection of federal troops.[53]

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 1964 interview with Robert Penn Warren for the book Who Speaks for the Negro?, Baldwin refuted the idea that the civil rights movement was an outright revolution, instead calling it "a very peculiar revolution because it has to...have its aims the establishment of a union, and a...radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life...not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country."[54] In a 1979 speech at UC Berkeley, he called it, instead, "the latest slave rebellion."[55]

In 1968, Baldwin signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.[56]

Inspiration and relationships[edit]

As a young man, Baldwin's poetry teacher was Countee Cullen.[57]

A great influence on Baldwin was the painter Beauford Delaney. In The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin describes Delaney as

...the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my teacher and I as his pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.

Later support came from Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest black writer in the world." Wright and Baldwin became friends, and Wright helped Baldwin secure the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Award. Baldwin's essay "Notes of a Native Son" and his collection Notes of a Native Son allude to Wright's novel Native Son. In Baldwin's 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel", however, he indicated that Native Son, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, lacked credible characters and psychological complexity, and the friendship between the two authors ended.[58] Interviewed by Julius Lester,[59] however, Baldwin explained, "I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself." In 1965, Baldwin participated in a debate with William F. Buckley, on the topic of whether the American dream has adversely affected African Americans. The debate took place at The Cambridge Union in the UK. The spectating student body voted overwhelmingly in Baldwin's favour.[60]

In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger (September 20, 1932 – August 21, 2010), aged 17, though Happersberger's marriage three years later left Baldwin distraught.[61] Happersberger died on August 21, 2010, in Switzerland.

Baldwin was a close friend of the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. With Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin helped awaken Simone to the civil rights movement then gelling. Baldwin also provided her with literary references influential on her later work. Baldwin and Hansberry met with Robert F. Kennedy, along with Kenneth Clark and Lena Horne and others in an attempt to persuade Kennedy of the importance of civil rights legislation.[62]

Baldwin influenced the work of French painter Philippe Derome, whom he met in Paris in the early 1960s. Baldwin also knew Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Billy Dee Williams, Huey P. Newton, Nikki Giovanni, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet (with whom he campaigned on behalf of the Black Panther Party), Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Margaret Mead, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, Chinua Achebe and Maya Angelou. He wrote at length about his "political relationship" with Malcolm X. He collaborated with childhood friend Richard Avedon on the book Nothing Personal.[63]

Maya Angelou called Baldwin her "friend and brother", and credited him for "setting the stage" for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Baldwin was made a Commandeur de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government in 1986.[64]

Baldwin was also a close friend of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. Upon his death, Morrison wrote a eulogy for Baldwin that appeared in The New York Times. In the eulogy, entitled "Life in His Language," Morrison credits Baldwin as being her literary inspiration and the person who showed her the true potential of writing. She writes:

You knew, didn't you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn't you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. 'Our crown,' you said, 'has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,' you said, 'is wear it.'[65]

Death[edit]

Early on December 1, 1987,[66][67] (some sources say late on November 30[68][69]) Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.[70][71][72] He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.[73]

At the time of Baldwin's death, he had an unfinished manuscript called Remember This House, a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.[74] Following his death, publishing company McGraw-Hill took the unprecedented step of suing his estate to recover the $200,000 advance they had paid him for the book, although the lawsuit was dropped by 1990.[74] The manuscript forms the basis for Raoul Peck's 2016 documentary film I Am Not Your Negro.[75]

Legacy[edit]

Baldwin's influence on other writers has been profound: Toni Morrison edited the Library of America's first two volumes of Baldwin's fiction and essays: Early Novels & Stories (1998) and Collected Essays (1998). A third volume, Later Novels (2015), was edited by Darryl Pinckney, who had delivered a talk on Baldwin in February 2013 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of The New York Review of Books, during which he stated, "No other black writer I'd read was as literary as Baldwin in his early essays, not even Ralph Ellison. There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin's sentences and the cool of his tone, something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem."[76]

One of Baldwin's richest short stories, "Sonny's Blues", appears in many anthologies of short fiction used in introductory college literature classes.

In 1986, within the work The Story of English, Robert MacNeil, with Robert McCrum and William Cran, mentioned James Baldwin as an influential writer of African-American Literature, on the level of Booker T. Washington, and held both men up as prime examples of Black writers.

In 1987, Kevin Brown, a photo-journalist from Baltimore, founded the National James Baldwin Literary Society. The group organizes free public events celebrating Baldwin's life and legacy.

In 1992, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, established the James Baldwin Scholars program, an urban outreach initiative, in honor of Baldwin, who taught at Hampshire in the early 1980s. The JBS Program provides talented students of color from underserved communities an opportunity to develop and improve the skills necessary for college success through coursework and tutorial support for one transitional year, after which Baldwin scholars may apply for full matriculation to Hampshire or any other four-year college program.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included James Baldwin on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[77]

In 2005, the USPS created a first-class postage stamp dedicated to Baldwin, which featured him on the front, with a short biography on the back of the peeling paper.

In 2012 James Baldwin was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.[78]

In 2014 128th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, was named "James Baldwin Place" to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Baldwin's birth. He lived in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 24. Readings of Baldwin's writing were held at The National Black Theatre and a month long art exhibition featuring works by New York Live Arts and artist Maureen Kelleher. The events were attended by Council Member Inez Dickens, who led the campaign to honor Harlem native's son; also taking part were Baldwin's family, theatre and film notables, and members of the community.[79][80]

In 2016, Raoul Peck released his documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. It is based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. It is a ninety three minute journey into black history that connects the past of the Civil Rights Movement to the present of Black Lives Matter. It is a film that questions black representation in Hollywood and beyond.

In 2017, Scott Timberg wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times in which he noted existing cultural references to Baldwin, thirty years after his death, and concluded: "So Baldwin is not just a writer for the ages, but a scribe whose work—as squarely as George Orwell's—speaks directly to ours."[81]

Works[edit]

Together with others:

Collections
  • Early Novels & Stories: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, Going to Meet the Man (Toni Morrison, ed.) (Library of America, 1998), ISBN 978-1-883011-51-2.
  • Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name in the Street, The Devil Finds Work, Other Essays (Toni Morrison, ed.) (Library of America, 1998), ISBN 978-1-883011-52-9.
  • Later Novels: Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, If Beale Street Could Talk, Just Above My Head (Darryl Pinckney, ed.) (Library of America, 2015), ISBN 978-1-59853-454-2.
Music/spoken word recordings
  • A Lover's Question (CD, Les Disques Du Crépuscule – TWI 928-2, 1990)

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^Public Broadcasting Service (n.d.). "James Baldwin: About the Author". American Masters. Retrieved November 13, 2017. 
  2. ^"I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO". [dead link]
  3. ^Jean-François Gounardoo, Joseph J. Rodgers (1992). The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. Greenwood Press.  p. 158, pp. 148–200.
  4. ^ abcde"James Baldwin." Notable Black American Men. Book II. Ed. Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Retrieved via Biography in Context database, January 14, 2018.
  5. ^Children of promise : African-American literature and art for young people. Sullivan, Charles, 1933-. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 1991. ISBN 0810931702. OCLC 23143247. 
  6. ^Baldwin, J. (1985). "Notes of a Native Son". The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948–1985. Macmillan. 
  7. ^David Baldwin Remembers P.S. 24 School. Vimeo. 
  8. ^"Artist Bios: James Baldwin", Goodman Theatre.
  9. ^Pullman, Peter (2012). Wail: The Life of Bud Powell. Brooklyn, NY: Bop Changes. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-9851418-1-3. 
  10. ^Bobby Allyn, "DeWitt Clinton's remarkable alumni", City Room blog, The New York Times, July 21, 2009.
  11. ^Staff. "Richard Avedon", The Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2004 (accessed September 14, 2009). "He also edited the school magazine at DeWitt Clinton High, on which the black American writer James' Baldwin was literary editor."
  12. ^Baldwin, James (1963). The Fire Next Time. Down at the Cross—Letter from a Region of My Mind: Vintage. ISBN
Historic Plaque unveiled by Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation at 81 Horatio St. where James Baldwin lived in the late 1950s and early 1960s during one of his most prolific and creative periods
James Baldwin in his house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
Tombstone of James Baldwin and his mother Berdis, Ferncliff Cemetery and MausoleumHartsdale, Westchester County, New York, USA

They are poets, playwrights, novelists and scholars, and together they helped capture the voice of a nation. They have fearlessly explored racism, abuse and violence as well as love, beauty and music. While their names and styles have changed over the years, they have been the voices of their generations and helped inspire the generations that followed them. What follows is a list of prominent Black authors who have left a mark on the literary world forever.

Who would make your list? Add your thoughts in comment below. 

Maya Angelou

Acclaimed American poet, author and activist Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. Often referred to as a spokesman for African Americans and women through her many works, her gift of words connected all people who were “committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States.” [1]

“I want to write so that the reader … can say, ‘You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.’ ” [2]

Influenced by Black authors like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, her love of language developed at a young age. Her most famous work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969 and became the first in seven autobiographies of Angelou’s life.

A prolific poet, her words often depict Black beauty, the strength of women and the human spirit, and the demand for social justice. Her first collection of poems Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, the same year she became the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced. Writing for adults and children, Angelou was one of several African American women at the time who explored the Black female autobiographical tradition. Other female authors and contemporaries include Paule Marshall who published the novel Brown Girl, Brownstones and Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, many of whose poems lyricize the urban poor.

Learn more about Maya Angelou.


 [1] Southern Women Writers: The New Generation,” Carol E. Neubauer

James Baldwin

Though he spent most of his life living abroad to escape the racial prejudice in the United States, James Baldwin is the quintessential American writer. Best known for his reflections on his experience as an openly gay Black man in white America, his novels, essays and poetry make him a social critic who shared the pain and struggle of Black Americans.

Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin caught the attention of fellow writer Richard Wright who helped him secure a grant in order to support himself as a writer. He left to live in Paris at age 24 and went on to write Go Tell it on the Mountain which was published in 1953, a novel unlike anything written to date. Speaking with passion and depth about the Black struggle in America, it has become an American classic. Baldwin would continue to write novels, poetry and essays with a refreshingly unique perspective for the rest of his life. In 1956, Giovanni’s Room raised the issues of race and homosexuality at a time when it was taboo. And during the Civil Rights Movement, he published three of his most important  collections of essays, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961) and “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

James Baldwin provided inspiration for later generations of artists to speak out about the gay experience in Black America like Staceyann Chin and Nick Burd.

Image: Baldwin, 1982, MDCarchives

Amiri Baraka

Born in 1934, poet, writer and political activist Amiri Baraka used his writing as a weapon against racism and became one of the most widely published African American writers. Known for his social criticism and incendiary style, Baraka explored the anger of Black Americans and advocated scientific socialism.  Often confrontational and designed to awaken audiences to the political needs of Black Americans, Baraka was a prominent voice in American literature.

Inciting controversy throughout his career, he was accused of fostering hate while at the same time being lauded for speaking out against oppression. Often focusing on Black Liberation and White Racism, he spent most of his life fighting for the rights of African Americans. With a writing career that spanned nearly fifty years, Baraka is respected as one of the leading revolutionary cultural and political leaders, especially in his hometown of Newark, NJ. His representations of race and wisdom have made him an influential part of the Black Arts Movement along with Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. Together they have gone on to inspire younger generations like Terrence Hayes. 

Image: Poet Amiri Baraka on May 10, 1975 (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Octavia Butler

In a genre known for being traditionally white and male, Octavia Butler broke new ground in science fiction as an African American woman. Born in California in 1947, Butler was an avid reader despite having dyslexia, was a storyteller by 4, and began writing at the age of 10. Drawn to science fiction because of its boundless possibilities for imagination, she was quickly frustrated by the lack of people she could identify with so she decided to create her own.  

Butler took the science fiction world by storm. Her evocative novels featuring race, sex, power and humanity were highly praised and attracted audience beyond their genre. They would eventually be translated into multiple languages and sell more than a million copies. One of her best-known novels Kindred, published in 1979, tells the story of a Black woman who must travel back in time in order to save her own life by saving a white, slaveholding ancestor. Over her career, she won two Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur fellowship. The self-described “outsider’s” legacy inspired future generations of women including Valjeanne Jeffers, Nnedi Okorafor and even singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe.

Image: Butler at book signing, released by Nikolas Coukouma. 

W.E.B. Du Bois

As an activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian and prolific writer, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential African American thought leaders of the 20th century. Growing up in Massachusetts as part of the Black elite, it wasn’t until attending Fisk University in Tennessee that issues of racial prejudice came to his attention. He studied Black America and wrote some of the earliest scientific studies on Black communities, calling for an end to racism. His thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 remains an authoritative work on the subject. 

The horrific lynching of Sam Hose in 1899 prompted Du Bois to begin writing The Souls of Black Folk. Calling for organized action and an end to segregation, Jim Crow laws, and political disenfranchisement in America, the prophetic work was not well received at the time of its publication. Du Bois eventually went on to help to establish the NAACP where he became editor of its newspaper the Crisis, and a well-known spokesman for the cause. Many of his essays from Crisis were published in book form under the title The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from "The Crisis."

In addition to The Souls of Black Folk and the articles and editorials for the Crisis, Du Bois wrote several books. While these attracted less attention than his scholarly works, the also focused on the Black race covering the topics of miscegenation and economic disparities in the South. Most respected for his scholarly writing, Du Bois’ concepts such as the psychology of colonization explored by Frantz Fanon continued being researched years later.

Image: W.E.B. Du Bois, 1919, Library of Congress 

Ralph Ellison

Born Ralph Waldo Ellison after the famous journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison was known for pursuing universal truths through his writing. A literary critic, writer, and scholar, Ellison taught at a variety of colleges and spent two years overseas as a Fellow of the American Academy. In an effort to transcend the starkly defined racial categories of the 1950s, he was sometimes criticized for choosing white society over his African American identity. Identifying as an artist first, Ellison rejected the notion that one should stand for a particular ideology, refuting both Black and white stereotypes in his collection of political, social and critical essays titled Shadow and Act

However, it was Ellison’s first novel that established his place as an important literary figure in America. Published in 1952, the first lines of Invisible Man struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of readers, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . ." Considered one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century, Ellison was heavily influenced by Zora Neale Hurston and is often cited as an influence with many writers today such as ZZ Packer and Toni Morrison.

Image: National Archives, United States Information Agency staff photographer

Alex Haley

Alex Haley’s writing on the struggle of African Americans inspired nationwide interest in genealogy and popularized Black history. Best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the novel Roots, Haley began his writing career freelancing and struggled to make ends meet. Eating canned sardines for weeks at a time, his big break came when Playboy magazine assigned him to interview Miles Davis. Proving to be such a success, the magazine contracted Haley to do a series of interviews with prominent African Americans. Known as “The Playboy Interviews,” Haley would eventually meet Malcolm X and ask permission to write his biography. The Autobiography of Malcolm X would soon become an international bestseller and Haley became a literary success.

Embarking on a new ambitious project, Haley was determined to trace his ancestor’s journey from Africa to America as slaves, and tell the story of their rise to freedom. After a decade of research and travel to West Africa, the epic novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in 1976. The book was a national sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize, eventually becoming a television miniseries that would shatter television viewing records when 130 million viewers tuned in. If you enjoy reading Alex Haley, consider reading Jesmyn Ward and Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Image: Mickey Adair/Getty Images

Langston Hughes

A primary contributor of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was one of the first to use jazz rhythms in his works, becoming an early innovator of the literary art form jazz poetry. While many American poets during the 1920s were writing esoteric poetry to a dwindling audience, Hughes addressed people using language, themes, attitudes and ideas that they could relate to.

Influenced by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, his poetry caught the attention of novelist, critic and prolific photographer Carl Van Vechten. With Van Vechten’s help, his first collection of poetry was published in 1926. Establishing Hughes’s poetic style and commitment to Black themes and heritage, The Weary Blues had popular appeal. When his first novel Not Without Laughter was published in 1930, it won the Harmon gold medal for literature. 

A prolific writer known for his colorful portrayals of Black life from the 1920s-1960s, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, poetry, several books, and contributed the lyrics to a Broadway musical. In addition to his extensive body of work, he inspired other artists and highlighted the power of art as a catalyst for change. Seen as a voice for their own experience, writers during the Harlem Renaissance often dedicated their work to Hughes. The play A Raisin in the Sun by playwright Lorraine Hansberry was named for a line from a Langston Hughes poem. 

Image: Langston Hughes, 1936 Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress 

Zora Neale Hurston

In 1925 as the Harlem Renaissance gained momentum, Zora Neale Hurston headed to New York City. By the time of its height in the 1930s, Hurston was a preeminent Black female writer in the United States. It’s said that her apartment was a popular spot for social gatherings with the well-known artists of the time like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

Of Hurston’s more than 50 published novels, short stories, plays and essays, she  wrote her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Unlike the style of contemporaries Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston did not write explicitly about Black people in the context of white America. She focused on the culture and traditions of African Americans through the poetry of their speech.

Despite her earlier literary success, Hurston would suffer later in her career. Having difficulty getting published, she died poor and alone. Years later, Alice Walker would help revive interest in Hurston’s work with her essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," published in Ms. magazine in 1975. This essay, alongside her edits of notable works like “I Love Myself When I am Laughing and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive,” brought Hurston to the attention of a new generation of readers.   

Image: Zora Neale Hurston, Photo by Carl Van Vechten (1938) Library of Congress 

Richard Wright

Born in Mississippi in 1908, Richard Wright is best known for his novels Native Son and Black Boy, that mirrored his own struggle with poverty and coming of age journey.A staunch critic of his literary contemporary Zora Neale Hurston, Wright’s work was overtly political, focusing on the struggle of Blacks in America for equality and economic advancement.

Wright’s dreams of becoming a writer took off when he gained employment through the Federal Writers Project and received critical attention for a collection of short stories called Uncle Tom’s Children. The fame that came with the 1940 publication of Native Son (not to be confused with James Baldwin’s titular essay: “Notes of a Native Son,” which criticized Wright’s work) made him a household name. It became the first book by an African American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.

His novel Black Boy was a personal account of growing up in the South and eventual move to Chicago where he became a writer and joined the Communist Party. While the book was a great success, Wright had become disillusioned with white America and the Communist Party, and moved to Paris. He spent the rest of his life living as an expatriate and he continued to write novels.

Image: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

BONUS | Toni Morrison

Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison is considered the voice of African American women. Growing up in an integrated neighborhood, Morrison was not fully aware of racial divisions until her teenage years. Dedicated to her studies, she went on to earn her master’s degree before moving to Howard University to teach. It was in the 1960s when Morrison became an editor at Random House that she began to write.

While she had published The Bluest Eye in 1970 and Sula in 1973, The Song of Solomon was the book that set her on the course of literary success. It became the first work by an African American author since Native Son by Richard Wright to be a featured selection in the Book-of-the-Month Club. The publication of Beloved in 1987 is considered to be her greatest masterpiece and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Young authors Danielle Evans and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins cite Toni Morrison as one of their influences.

Image: Toni Morrison, 1986, MDCarchives

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