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Biography: James Baldwin


Biography: James Baldwin

James Baldwin


When writer and social critic James Baldwin died in 1987, historian Henry Louis Gates said that he had, "educated an entire generation of Americans about the civil-rights struggle and the sensibility of Afro-Americans as we faced and conquered the final barriers in our long quest for civil rights." In a career that spanned more than forty years and two continents, Baldwin is remembered for his work as a social critic and writer of plays, poetry, novels and essays.

Early Life and Education

Baldwin was born in New York City on August 2, 1924. Shortly after Baldwin's birth, his mother Emma Berdis divorced his biological father and remarried a preacher named David Baldwin. Baldwin, along with his eight siblings, was raised in Harlem.

As a teenager, Baldwin began to develop his craft as a writer. While attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Baldwin was the literary editor of Magpie, the school's magazine. One of his interview subjects was poet and educator Countee Cullen.

At the age of 14, Baldwin became a Pentecostal preacher. For three years, Baldwin served as the junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. Yet, at 17 he walked away from the pulpit and Christianity. In Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote "being in the pulpit was like being in the theater; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked."

A Burgeoning Writer

Once Baldwin left the church, he also left his family's home, finding work on the New Jersey Railroad. Soon after, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he met writer Richard Wright. For the next few years, Baldwin worked as a freelance writer--publishing book reviews. With the help of Wright, Baldwin received a grant that enabled him to move to Paris in 1948.

Life in Europe

Arriving in Europe, Baldwin continued to write, publishing articles in several magazines. He once said, "Once you find yourself in another civilization, you're forced to examine your own." In much of Baldwin's writings, he examined his life, race, racism, sexuality and the United States.

In 1953, Baldwin published his first novel Go Tell it On the Mountain while living in Switzerland. The novel was a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman analyzing racism, spirituality in the lives of an African-American family in Harlem. Two years later, Baldwin published a collection of essays entitled, Notes of a Native Son which analyzes race relations in the United States and Europe. Two of Baldwin's most controversial novels, Giovanni's Room, published in 1965 and Another Country, published in 1964 explored issues such as homosexuality and interracial relationships.

Return to the United States and Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957 to report on the Civil Rights Movement. While traveling throughout the South, Baldwin published two essays, The Hard Kind of Courage and Nobody Knows My Name in Harper's and the Partisan Review, respectively. In 1963, Baldwin published a collection of essays focused on racism and race relations in the United States entitled, The Fire Next Time.

In addition to writing about the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Traveling throughout the South, Baldwin spoke to college students about the importance of leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

In August of 1963, Baldwin participated in the March on Washington. The following year, in March 1964, Baldwin walked 50 miles with marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

During this time period, Baldwin continued to publish fiction including the play Blues for Mister Charlie, in 1964; a collection of short stories in 1965 entitled Going to Meet the Man, 1965; and a novel, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone in 1968.

Return to Europe

Following the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin was disillusioned with the Civil Rights Movement and the United States. Moving back to France, Baldwin published If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974. Until his death in 1987, Baldwin continued to work as an essayist and fiction writer including collections of essays such asThe Devil Finds Work in 1976, The Evidence of Things Not Seen and The Price of the Ticket both published in 1985; novels, Just Above My Head, 1979 and Harlem Quartet, 1987; and a collection of poems, Jimmy's Blues in 1983.


Baldwin died on December 1, 1987 from stomach cancer. His body was brought back to the United States where he was buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, NY.

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