James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York, in 1924. He was reared by his mother Emma Berdis Jones and stepfather David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher, originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. James Baldwin was the eldest of nine children, and he took this responsibility seriously, caring for and protecting his three younger brothers and five sisters in a household governed by the rigid rules of their extremely strict father.
During his early teen years, Baldwin attended Frederick Douglass Junior High School, where he met his French teacher and mentor Countee Cullen, who achieved prominence as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Baldwin went on to the predominantly white DeWitt Clinton High School, where he edited the school newspaper Magpie, with Richard Avedon, Emile Capouya and Sol Stein (who would go on to become renowned fashion photographers and publishers), and participated in the literary club.
Between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, Baldwin became a preacher at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He would go on to write about his boyhood in this religious community in 1930s Harlem in his debut novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) – a blazing tale full of passion and guilt, of secret sinners and prayers singing on the wind.
Baldwin later rejected the church, but his time at the pulpit would have a sustained impact on his rhetorical style and on the themes, symbols, and biblical allusions in his writings. His experience in the pulpit also served to inflect his overall stance on religion, and his ultimate rejection of it in the name of humanistic love. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin proclaims, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, it is time we got rid of Him.”
At seventeen, Baldwin left school to earn a living so that he could support his family. He began working at a track depot in New Jersey, and it was here he experienced such racism from his white co-workers that he would later name in Notes of a Native Son as part of the reason he left America. In 1948, feeling stifled by racial discrimination in America, Baldwin travelled to Paris at the age of 24 with just $40 in his pocket.
It was in Paris that Baldwin would become part of a bustling literary and artistic community that included writer and mentor Richard Wright (with whom Baldwin would later fall out), painter Beauford Delaney, the composer Howard Swanson, the dancer Bernard Hassell and the writer Maya Angelou. Here, sitting in the Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, and between trips to Switzerland, Spain, and the United States, Baldwin would go on to create masterpieces of the American literary canon.
His first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain was published in 1953, followed by his debut essay collection Notes of a Native Son in 1955, in which he wrote about race, Paris, and criticised his mentor Richard Wright (the two would later have a huge fight outside the Café de Flore). Giovanni’s Room, his second novel about an ill-fated love affair between an American ex-soldier and an Italian barman, proved so provocative to Baldwin’s American publisher Knopf they refused to publish it (the book was later published by Dial Press in 1956).
After an itinerant decade in Paris, Baldwin returned to the US and became an active member of the Civil Rights Movement. He became close friends with Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Lorraine Hansberry. During this time, he spoke widely about civil rights in the US and abroad, most notably at a legendary debate with William Buckley at the University of Cambridge.
In 1963, Baldwin attended the March on Washington alongside his friends Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Marlon Brando, and later, along with Belafonte, actor Lena Horne, and his writer friend Hansberry, spoke explicitly with Attorney General Robert Kennedy about the concerns of the civil rights movement in America. The assassinations of Evers, King and X that were to come that decade would have a profound impact on Baldwin.
Living abroad, away from America, was a constant in James Baldwin’s life. Beginning in 1961, Baldwin lived in Istanbul on and off for nearly ten years. This Turkish decade provided a reprieve from America’s homophobia and racism during the height of the civil rights struggles. At the time, Baldwin told his friend, assistant, and drama critic Zeynep Oral, “I can’t breathe, I have to look from the outside.”
Living in Turkey gave Baldwin the perspective to critically analyse life in America. In the short film “James Baldwin: From Another Place“, directed by his friend Sedat Pakay in 1970, Baldwin states “one sees it better from a distance … from another place, another country.” In Istanbul, Baldwin completed the novels Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), the play Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), a book of short stories Going to Meet the Man (1965), and the collection of essays The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972).
Baldwin later settled in St. Paul de Vence, France. He remained an outspoken observer of race relations, and branched out into other forms of creative expression, writing poetry and screenplays, including treatments for the Autobiography of Malcolm X that later inspired Spike Lee’s feature film, Malcolm X. He also spent years as a college professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College. His unfinished manuscript Remember This House was the subject of the critically acclaimed 2016 Raoul Peck film, I Am Not Your Negro, and his novel If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) was adapted into an award-winning film by Barry Jenkins.
Baldwin died at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France, on December 1, 1987, of stomach cancer at age 63. His works challenged us to uphold equality and justice, and contributed vastly to the artistic and intellectual landscape of the 20th century. His influence has been felt by readers and artists all over the world.