James Baldwin; Credit: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian…His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”- James Baldwin
Who is James Baldwin?
James Arthur Baldwin is a famed African American author and activist considered to be one of the great American writers of the 20th century. Baldwin was a major literary figure within the American Civil Rights Movement, producing scores of essays and novels that spoke from personal experiences, to capture the struggles of black Americans living within a racially segregated American society.
James Baldwin’s Early Life
James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in the Harlem borough of New York City. Baldwin grew up not ever knowing his biological father, in a large but poor family in the black ghetto of Harlem. From an early age, Baldwin displayed immense interest in reading and demonstrated a natural talent for writing. Baldwin’s had a strict, religious upbringing, being raised by a stepfather who was an evangelical preacher. Baldwin even embraced his religious identity for a time, working as a preacher outside of school from the age of fourteen to sixteen. Baldwin would later reject most of the religious values he had been raised with and his struggles to define an individual identity for himself in a strict religious household greatly influenced many of his later writings.
After graduating high school, Baldwin worked jobs to support his siblings but later moved to Greenwich Village in New York to study and pursue his passion for writing. Several essays Baldwin wrote at this time were published in prestigious magazines. At 24, Baldwin left the U.S. and moved to France where he would live continuously for 8 years. This began Baldwin’s life as a self-described “transatlantic commuter” frequently going back and forth between the US and Europe.
James Baldwin as a Writer
Baldwin credits his time spent living in France as allowing him to write about racial division and struggle in American society with more clarity and deeper understanding noting that “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you’re forced to examine your own.” While living in France, Baldwin wrote several of his most critically acclaimed works. In 1953, Baldwin published his first, semi-autobiographical, novel Go Tell It On The Mountain. The novel was later put on a list by Time magazine of the 100 greatest English language novels from 1923-2005. During this time, Baldwin also wrote a series of non-fiction essays on the topic of race in America, speaking on personal experiences, that was published in 1955 as a collection titled Notes of A Native Son. The collection garnered a large audience and would become one of Baldwin’s signature works.
After it was published, Baldwin came to be regarded as a leading authority on social upheavals for many white people in the United States at the time and continuing through the 1960s. In 1957, amid the American Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin returned to the United States and became an important literary voice and speaker for their cause. Baldwin would go on to publish many more novels and essays with a focus on relating the struggle and pain of black Americans to a white audience. Baldwin kept a consistent literary output for the remainder of his life although the influence and popularity of his later works were not as great as those published earlier in his career. Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in France at the age of 63.
James Baldwin’s Writing Style
Baldwin is noted by critics for a prose style of writing that had the feeling of being very careful and exact choices in the choices and placement of words. Art and literary critic David Littlejohn writes that reading Baldwin’s works gives the sense that he “picks up words with heavy care, then sets them, one by one, with a cool and loving precision...The exhilarating exhaustion of reading his best essays…demands that the reader measure up, and forces him to learn.”
James Baldwin's Writing Themes
The themes of Baldwin’s essays, novels, and plays centered on the topics of race, politics, sexuality, and identity and were biographical or semi-biographical in nature. For example, the essay titled “Stranger in the Village” in the book of essays Notes of a Native Son, details Baldwin’s experience living as the only black man in a small town in Switzerland. He uses the experience to muse about race relations in the US and the place of black identity within US society.
The themes of Baldwin’s works are informed by his self-defined role as a “disturber of the peace.” Baldwin believed that racism and segregation persisted in American society because of the complacency and apathy of many white Americans toward the suffering black Americans. According to Baldwin, by confronting white Americans with those uncomfortable truths through his literary works, they would begin to actively address problems of racism and discrimination in society and support efforts to improve racial equality. Relatedly, Baldwin believed it was his job as a writer to identify elements of a common humanity shared by all, that transcend racial and other boundaries, and to then reveal those to the reader. In doing so, Baldwin theorized, white Americans would begin to view black Americans as individuals the same as themselves, on the same level of humanity.
Baldwin’s novels often center on male protagonists and focus on how they struggle to develop their sense of identity within an oppressive society that denies them basic humanity and that forces them into social categories (e.g. black). Similar to Baldwin himself, these protagonists often engage in artistic pursuits to make existence in the oppressive society bearable and through which they achieve a measure of self-realization. Baldwin’s most famous novel, Go Tell It on The Mountain, follows this formula. The novel, which is a semi-autobiographical depiction of Baldwin’s own upbringing, focuses on the struggles of a black teenager living in Harlem with a fanatically religious and repressive father, to develop and accept their identity. A major theme of the novel is generational trauma or how pain and struggle are passed down from generation to generation.
James Baldwin as a Speaker
A talented and eloquent speaker, Baldwin also took on a role as a racial spokesperson, frequently engaging in debates, interviews, and panels on the topic of race to increase awareness among white Americans of the struggle black Americans faced in society. Despite becoming a leading voice of the Civil Rights Movement and particularly one looked to by white Americans, Baldwin was not widely accepted by all sects of the broader movement. Baldwin’s partial ostracization by the movement was partially due to criticisms of his pacificist approach to advancing Civil Rights. He was perceived to be over-catering to white Americans and audiences, and many opposed him due to his homosexuality (at odds with religious elements within the movement).
James Baldwin’s Legacy
During his time, and especially during the 1960s, Baldwin was treated by many within the Civil Rights movement as an outsider, whose ideas were met with lots of criticism. Roughly 30 years after his death, however, Baldwin is credited by some scholars with shaping the modern-day common shared understanding in American society of racial issues. The 2015 award-winning and best best-selling book by American journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, is based on an essay collection of Baldwin’s. The book is considered by many in elite circles to be an essential commentary on contemporary race relations in America which speaks to his persistent influence on American society. Additionally, many of his early works including Notes from a Native Son as well as Go Tell it On the Mountain are considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th-century American literature and critical documents for understanding the experiences of black Americans during the 20th century.