James Arthur Baldwin (August 2, 1924 December 1, 1987) was an American author, and a leading voice on the subject of race in America for many years. Baldwin was born in Harlem, where the only father he knew, his stepfather David Baldwin, was a Pentecostal preacher. A harsh, domineering man, he strongly encouraged James to follow in his footsteps, which he did by becoming a youth minister at the age of 14. Eventually, however, he burned out on religion and decided to develop a love of literature that he discovered at an early age. He spent most of his teenage years in libraries where he read voraciously and settled on becoming a writer.
After the death of his stepfather, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village where he started his writing career and was introduced to the New York literary scene. He befriended fellow writer Richard Wright and worked multiple jobs in order to finance his writing. His desire to distance himself from the stigma of being a "Negro writer" as well as his struggles with his homosexuality caused him to move to France on a fellowship. Here, he felt a freedom to write frankly and openly about his life, race, and sexuality that he would never have found in New York.
Baldwin's work is often highly biographical. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a thinly veiled Biography à Clef revolving around Baldwin's abusive childhood, disillusionment with religion, and struggles with his identity. Baldwin is perhaps most famous for his collection of semi-biographical essays called Notes of a Native Son. The most well known essays in this collection were "Everybody's Protest Novel" and "Many Thousands Gone" in which he roundly criticized Richard Wright's novel Native Son, both for Wright's heavy-handed radical themes and what he considered to be an excessively stereotypical protagonist. Both were so highly regarded that they actually damaged Wright's reputation, and as a result, injured their friendship beyond repair.
Baldwin was deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement, having experienced something of a political awakening in France. While initially skeptical of political activism, he became disillusioned with the hypocrisy of American liberalism and became attached to radical leftism and the Black Power movements. His later works reflect this, becoming more pessimistic and militant in their tone. He notably was personally invited to join the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad, but turned him down. He also participated in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, despite his dubious attitude toward Christianity, even helping him to organize the March on Washington.
James Baldwin's works include:
- Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical novel where Author Avatar John Grimes attempts to cope with his upbringing in Harlem under his authoritarian preacher father. Being an exploration of Baldwin's religious difficulties, it is extremely heavy on religious symbolism (the name of the novel coming from a famous hymn).
- Giovanni's Room, the fruit of Baldwin's grappling with his sexuality in France, telling the story of a thinly-veiled Author Avatar named David and his affair with a Parisian bartender named Giovanni. Especially notable in that both men are ostensibly in deeply committed relationships with women, it stands out as being one of the most nuanced depictions of homosexuality and bisexuality in American literature, especially for the time period. As a result, it is considered a touchstone of LGBT literature.
- The Amen Corner, a play in three-acts describing the life of a Harlem preacher and her troubled family life.
- Notes of a Native Son, a collection of essays on various subjects of African-American life in the United States, Baldwin's own life, and art. The titular essay expounds on Baldwin's difficult relationship with his father, and his attempts to cope with the hatred he developed as a result.
- The Fire Next Time, a pair of essays intended to show white readers how they are viewed by their black counterparts, and offer a view on the inadequacy of their self-perception. The title serves as a warning of potential calamity if "the Negro problem" is simply ignored, and comes from an old Negro spiritual.
- If Beale Street Could Talk, a novel about a 19 year old girl's attempt to free her fiancé from imprisonment on false charges before her baby can be born without a father. Later made into a film by Barry Jenkins.
- Evidence of Things Not Seen, Baldwin's study of the Atlanta Child Murders where he offers commentary on the role race and the culture of the city of Atlanta played in the killings.
- I Am Not Your Negro, the acclaimed 2016 documentary film about Baldwin, is based on his unfinished memoir Remember This House.
- Complete-the-Quote Title: The Fire Next Time is titled after an old gospel music lyric.