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James Baldwin (1924-1987), American writer, whose focus on issues of racial discrimination made him a prominent spokesperson for racial equality, especially during the civil rights movements of the 1960s. He is best known for his semiautobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and for The Fire Next Time (1963), a powerful collection of essays in which he expressed his belief that racial discrimination is a disease of white society, curable only by white society’s acknowledgement of the illness.
James Arthur Baldwin was born in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City to a single mother, Emma Birdis Jones. When he was still young, his mother married a preacher, David Baldwin, who adopted James. The family was poor, and James and his adopted father had a difficult relationship. Baldwin attended the prestigious De Witt Clinton Public High School in New York. At the age of 14 he joined the Pentecostal Church and became a Pentecostal preacher.
When he was 17 years old, Baldwin turned away from religion and moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood famous for its freethinking artists and writers. Supporting himself with odd jobs, he began to write short stories, essays, and book reviews, many of which were later collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955). During this time Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin left the United States for Paris, France. He would live in Paris for most of his later life.
In Paris, with the support of fellowship grants and literary supporters such as American novelist Richard Wright, Baldwin wrote his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. The book describes a boy’s religious conversion, and Baldwin tells the story through a series of prayers that serve as flashbacks. He weaves the history of the boy’s family and community into the novel’s narrative. While in France, Baldwin came to accept his homosexuality and began work on Giovanni’s Room (1956), a novel about a man exploring his sexual identity. In 1957, impressed by the growing strength of the civil rights movement in the United States, Baldwin returned to the country briefly in order to participate.
He published his observations of the United States in the essay collections Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time. The latter, a study of the Black Muslim movement led by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, predicted violence and political upheaval if American whites did not face up to the country’s racial problems. The success of The Fire Next Time made Baldwin a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. He spoke out in interviews and gave impassioned speeches about racial justice.
Baldwin continued to address racial issues in his novels as well. Another Country (1962) describes the tortured relationships within a group of black and white friends. Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968) is about a Harlem boy’s rise to fame as an actor. If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) depicts the struggles of a young African American couple hemmed in by racism and an unsympathetic legal system. In Baldwin’s last novel, Just Above My Head (1979), the brother of a dead gospel singer reflects on his brother’s life.
In 1964 Baldwin collaborated with American photographer Richard Avedon on Nothing Personal, a collection of photographs and essays about the United States. Baldwin’s other works include the plays The Amen Corner (1950) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964); the short-story collection Going to Meet the Man (1965); the essay collections The Devil Finds Work (1976) and The Price of the Ticket (1985); and the poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues (1985).
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