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Remembering James Baldwin

"You write in order to change the world."

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • August 01, 2021

James Baldwin was born 97 years ago on August 2, 1924. Though he died when he was only 63, he left behind a powerful legacy. His searing essays positioned him as a leading voice in discussions around racial equality, sexual freedom, and social justice. His fiction and poetry broke new ground, exploring themes around masculinity, sexuality, race, and class.

Childhood Pain

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

Baldwin was born to single mother Emma Berdis Jones. She had left Baldwin's biological father because of his drug abuse. Settling in Harlem, she later married David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher, and he adopted her three-year-old son. They went on to have eight more children together and Baldwin often felt that his father treated him more harshly than his biological children.

Baldwin's love of reading, combined with the persecution he endured at home, drove him to spend much time alone in libraries. His autobiographical novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain, is a fictionalized depiction of his spiritual, sexual, and moral struggles while coming of age.

A Prodigious Talent

I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn't know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.

At his Harlem elementary school, Baldwin famously wrote the school song, which was used until it closed many years later. In his book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, he shares the story of a play he wrote at ten. One of his teachers, seeing his talent, offered to take him to see some "real" plays. Baldwin's father objected to this idea as the teacher was white, but his mother overruled saying, "it would not be very nice to let such a kind woman make the trip for nothing."

Later, in middle and high school, Baldwin reports being strongly influenced by the poet Countee Cullen, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He served as an editor and contributor on his school newspapers and magazines, but struggled with the racist behavior he experienced in these settings.

Religious Roots

If the concept of God has any use, it is to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God can't do that, it's time we got rid of him.

Perhaps in an attempt to please his father, a teenage Baldwin briefly entertained thoughts of a religious career. As a junior minister in the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, he quickly developed a fervent following, but a few years later, he came to view Christianity as hypocritical and left the church. In his essay The Fire Next Time, Baldwin reflected that "being in the pulpit was like working in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked."

Life as an Ex-Pat

I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

The prejudice he experienced in American drove a 24-year-old Baldwin to relocate to Paris, where he felt more free to express his views on both racial equity and sexual freedom. In Paris, he wrote his second novel, Giovanni's Room. The now-classic narrative was highly controversial for its depictions of homosexual and bisexual relationships. The book delves into the mystery of love and creates a moving story that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

In the 1970s, he settled in the south of France in an old Provençal house beneath the ramparts of the village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Here he wrote many of his later works, including the novel If Beale Street Could Talk, a story that centers on a strong, but embattled, Black American family, one of several of Baldwin's writings that has been adapted into an acclaimed film.

An Untimely Death

Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.

On December 1, 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer. By the time of his passing, Baldwin had become a friend and inspiration to many other notable writers of the time, including such luminaries as Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison, who wrote his New York Times eulogy, titled "Life in His Language." Her closing words:

You knew, didn't you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn't you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. "Our crown," you said, "has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do," you said, "is wear it."

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