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James Baldwin was an African-American poet, playwright, novelist, social critic, and essayist. One of his books, Notes of a Native Son, features his collected essays that deal with the understood, but unsaid, 20th-century rules and distinctions between different classes and races in the United States. James Baldwin’s many books of essays and poems addressed the complicated social pressure on blacks and homosexual men.

Youth and Education

James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. Emma Berdis Jones, his mother, bore him alone after leaving his biological, drug-abusing father and moving to Harlem to escape. She soon married David Baldwin, a local preacher, and the family struggled in severe poverty. James Baldwin cared for his nine younger siblings growing up and suffered racial harassment from the police. His step-father treated him unkindly and abused him throughout his childhood as well. David worked as a factory worker and Baptist preacher, thought white people evil, and forbid his children from watching movies or listening to jazz.[1]

Baldwin first attended P.S. 24 Elementary School with the first African-American New York public school principal, Gertrude Ayer, and Orilla Miller, a white theater intern, who encouraged his interest in writing and the theater. He enrolled at Frederick Douglass Junior High next where he studied with Countee Cullen, a well-known poet and member of the Harlem Renaissance. Cullen introduced his students to acclaimed African-American writers and discussed what his life in France. Baldwin also served as editor of the school’s newspaper.

At 14-years-old, James Baldwin turned to his step-father’s Mt. Calvary of the Pentecostal Church for solace and belonging. He became a junior minister in the church and for three years drew more crowds than his father at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. [2]

At age 15, Baldwin met Beauford Delaney, an African-American painter living in Greenwich Village, New York. Delaney mentored Baldwin, who worked in a sweatshop near Delaney’s studio, and solidified the fact black people could be artists too.[3] David Baldwin died from tuberculosis just before James’s 19th birthday in 1943. The funeral took place on James Baldwin’s actual birthday. The same day his mother bore his last sibling and as the 1943 Harlem Riot.[4]

Early Career and France

In 1942, James Baldwin graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School. He worked a variety of odd jobs for six years while living in Greenwich Village, where he met many different creatives like Burt Lancaster, Paul Robeson, Eartha Kitt, and Marlon Brando. Baldwin began This Generation, a literary magazine.

Baldwin met Richard Wright, one of his heroes and author of Native Son, in 1945. Wright read the draft for Baldwin’s first autobiographical novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain, and recommended him for the Eugene F. Saxon Foundation’s fellowship worth $500. [5]

As a gay, African-American man in the United States, James Baldwin feared his writing would not be appreciated and even belittled.

Baldwin also began to find himself attracted to men during this time. In 1948, he entered a segregated restaurant and was refused service for being black.[6] That November, he booked a one-way flight to Paris, France and arrived with only $40. He met writers like Philip Roth, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Saul Bellow. [7] He wanted to distance himself from the homophobia and racism in the U.S. since he did not want his work read as though he was “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.”[8]

James Baldwin, Writer

James Baldwin spent 40 years writing and publishing a variety of books, essays, poems, and plays. He received many awards and commendations for his literary achievements ,including the French Legion of Honor in 1986 and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Some of James Baldwin’s published works include: 1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1955’s Notes of a Native Son, 1956’s Giovanni’s Room, 1962’s Another Country, 1963’s The Fire Next Time, 1964’s Blues for Mr. Charlie, 1968’s The Amen Corner, 1976’s The Devil Finds Work, 1979’s Just Above My Head, 1986’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, and 1985’s The Price of a Ticket.

Baldwin also took long trips while based in France and lived for extended periods of time in Corsica, Switzerland, the United States, and Turkey.[9]

Political and Social Activist

In 1957, James Baldwin returned to his homeland to write for the Partisan Review about the U.S. south after seeing a photograph of a girl in Charlotte, North Carolina fighting a mob of protestors to enter a desegregated school. He interviewed people in Montgomery, Alabama and in Charlotte, N.C., where he met Martin Luther King, Jr. He published several essays and articles about his experience in the Partisan Review, Harper’s, the New Yorker, and others. James Baldwin’s essay, The Fire Next Time, first appeared in The Progressive.[10]

James Baldwin fought for civil rights by writing, walking, and addressing political figures.

Baldwin penned many controversial pieces, but his ideals fell more in with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He lectured for CORE in North Carolina and Louisiana with CORE in 1963, teaching about his belief in a midpoint between the aggressive Malcolm X approach and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent approach. [11]

James Baldwin took over as the Civil Rights Movement spokesman by early 1963. Time magazine chose his face to represent the struggles of African-Americans in Birmingham, Alabama.[12]He met with U.S. President John F. Kennedy twice to discuss the violence occurring there Baldwin placed the blame on President Kennedy, the FBI, and J. Edgar Hoover. Baldwin also met with Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, on May 24, 1963, with other activists to demand that the government work harder to ensure the civil rights of all U.S. citizens, regardless of color.[13]

Baldwin participated in the Washington, D.C. Civil Rights March on August 28, 1963, as one of only two openly gay men. He also walked from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery in the famous March 1965 protest march after condemning the Kennedy administration for not taking action and sending Federal troops to protect southern African-Americans.[14]

Illness and Death

In April 1987, doctors diagnosed James Baldwin with esophageal cancer. He tried surgery and laser treatments, but it spread to his other vital organs within two months. His poor health confined him to bed while his mind continued to remain active.

James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. His funeral took place at St. John the Divine Cathedral on December 8 after being flown back to New York. A funeral procession led his body through Harlem to be laid to rest by Paul Robeson and Malcolm X in Ferncliff Cemetery.[15]



Baldwin, J. (2012). Notes of a Native Son. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Baldwin, J. (1999). The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: Saint Martin’s Press.

Goodman Theatre. (2011). Artist Bios - James Baldwin. Retrieved November 29, 2016, from Goodman Theatre.[1]

Polsgrove, C. (2001). Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. New York: WW Norton & Co.


  1. Baldwin, 2012
  2. Goodman Theatre, 2011
  3. Baldwin, 1999
  4. Baldwin, 2012
  5. Goodman Theatre, 2011
  6. Baldwin, 1999
  7. Goodman Theatre, 2011
  8. Baldwin, 1999
  9. Goodman Theatre, 2011
  10. Polsgrove, 2001
  11. Leeming, D. (2015). James Baldwin: A Biography. United States: Skyhorse Publishing.
  12. Polsgrove, 2001
  13. Goodman Theatre, 2011
  14. Polsgrove, 2001
  15. Goodman Theatre, 2011

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