One of the best known African American writers of the
20th century, James Baldwin has been celebrated for both his fiction and
nonfiction. A rallying voice for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s,
Baldwin was a master polemicist against social injustice as well as an accomplished
novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, and children's book author.
Much of his writing explores the destruction people can wreak upon one another
through hatred, and extols the saving power of love and brotherhood.
|Photo courtesy of the estate of James Baldwin
Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin was the son of a domestic worker and a father
he never knew. When Baldwin was three, his mother married a factory worker
who was also a minister. At 14, Baldwin became a minister at a small church
in Harlem. "Those three years in the pulpit -- I didn't realize it then
-- that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish
and that despair and that beauty," he later wrote. Critics have often pointed
to the influence of the church in his writing, both in his recurrent themes
of redemption, and in his cadences and style.
An avid reader who published his first story in a church newspaper when
he was 12, Baldwin left home at 17 and moved to Greenwich Village. His first
novel, the partly autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain, was
published in 1953 to great critical acclaim. The essay collections that
followed -- Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name
(1963), and The Fire Next Time (1963) -- made him known to a larger,
In 1948 Baldwin moved to France. "I left America," he wrote in 1959, "because
I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the colour problem here ...
I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or even merely
a Negro writer." In Paris, he was befriended by the writer Richard Wright,
also an African American, and through him, Baldwin was introduced to the
American expatriate arts community. He lived in the south of France for
most of the rest of his life, although he returned regularly to the United
States to lecture and teach. Though he was a "black writer" before the Civil
Rights Movement and a "homosexual writer" before the Gay Rights Movement,
Baldwin nonetheless saw himself as an American writer first and foremost.
He died in 1987.
Works by the Author