August 2nd – James Baldwin

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

James Baldwin August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987

James Baldwin was born August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York. James mother Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father and later married a Baptist preacher, David Baldwin, who had a son 9 years older than James. Emma and David had eight children. The family was poor, and his step-father was hard on James, who from an early age was deemed gifted academically. At the age of 13 he had written his first essay published in the school paper – “Harlem – Then and Now.”

During his teens Baldwin became a preacher, turning his frustration with the world into passionate weekly sermons. Although he later left behind his religion, Baldwin credits the years of preaching with establishing his voice as a writer, “dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” 

 When he was 15 he met Beauford Delaney, a modernist painter who would become his mentor and plant the seeds inside him that a black man could be an artist.

In 1943 his step father died of tuberculosis the same day his last child was born. David’s funeral was on Baldwin’s 19th birthday, as were the Harlem riot of 1943, which Baldwin portrays in his essay “Notes of a Native Son.”

Baldwin worked for a few years as a freelance writer in Harlem, mainly writing book reviews, and caught the attention of writer Richard Wright, who helped him secure a grant to pursue writing.

By the age of 24 Baldwin, disillusioned by the racism he faced in America, moved to France. Two years prior his best friend had committed suicide, and Baldwin felt if he didn’t leave the country he was destined to be taken under by the same fate. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, which he had begun writing when he was 17,was published in 1953. Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of essays, was published in 1955. Giovanni’s Room (1956) was controversial when it was published because of its homosexual themes, but Baldwin’s next two works, Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and Another Country (1962) were immediate best-sellers. In the 1960s Baldwin returned to America to take part in the Civil Rights movement. His book The Fire Next Time (1963) was so explosive it landed him on the cover of time magazine. 

Baldwin died of stomach cancer at the age of 63, on December 1, 1987

Lesson from Baldwin:

Baldwin’s novels, essays and plays focused mainly on race, class and sexuality in mid-20th century America. Being abroad gave Baldwin the perspective and solitude to reflect upon the culture of America to craft his works.

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