James Arthur Baldwin was an American writer, novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and civil rights activist. He his most notably known for his novels on sexual and personal identity and biting essays on civil rights movements in the United States. His first novel, “Go tell it on the mountain” was the one that gave him his first dose of fame. Several of his novels also dealt with homosexual connections and the pressures of being black. This was well before the social and cultural groups could be assumed.
James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York City. He was the first of his mother’s nine children but never met his biological father nor did he even know the man’s identity. At the age of three his mother married a man by the name of David Baldwin who became his father figure, but was a harsh and cruel man. James Baldwin grew up in extreme poverty but found his love through literature and read many books as a child. Although his stepfather opposed his literary aspirations, Baldwin found support from his teacher and from the mayor of New York City, Fiorello H. LaGuardia. When Baldwin was 12 he published his first story in the church newspaper. By the time he was 17 he had graduated from high school, left home and had been employed in several ill paid jobs. It was then that he began his literary apprenticeship.
Like many writers, there are people that come in and out of our lives that have great influence on the way in which we write and what we write about. One such man for James Baldwin as Richard Wright. Baldwin called Richard Wright the “greatest black writer in the world for me” and they quickly became good friends. It was during this period that Baldwin wrote a collection of essays entitles “Notes of a Native Son” in reference to Wright’s novel “Native Son.” Their friendship would be short lived, as Baldwin made the assertion that Wright’s “Native Son” novel did not have “credible characters and psychological complexity.” Although Baldwin still greatly admired Wright, and tried to explain his statements, they were never friends again.
Another prominent influent in the life of James Baldwin was an African American painter by the name of Beauford Delaney. Baldwin described Delaney as “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.” As this was not a time where any black man would have been considered a white man’s teacher (which is how Baldwin saw him), Delaney became a courageous example of integrity, humility, and passion. He said about Delaney, “An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.”
His next most prominent influence was a singer, painter, and civil rights activist named Nina Simone. Baldwin, along with Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry was responsible for making her aware of the racial inequalities that existed between blacks and whites. He also left her with literary references to help increase her knowledge on this point.
In 1948 James Baldwin left his home town and moved to Europe; his first destination being Paris. During his time in Europe he wrote an essay called “Stranger in the Village.” This essay portrayed many of his feelings of helplessness and strangeness in a new country. When he finally returned to the United States he became actively involved with the Civil Rights Movement. He was among the people who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. to Washington D.C. He was on the faculty of Five Colleges in Massachusetts where he mentored and trained successful playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Mount Holyoke. He spent his later years in St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera, France and died from stomach cancer on November 30 1987.