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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

14. Becoming Visible

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- James Baldwin
- Saul Bellow
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Ralph Ellison
- Bernard Malamud
- Paule Marshall
- Arthur Miller
- N. Scott Momaday
- Grace Paley
- Philip Roth
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: James Baldwin (1924-1987)

At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina
[3355] Jack Delano, At the Bus Station in Durham, North Carolina (1940), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF33-020522-M2].

James Baldwin Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
The eldest of nine children, James Baldwin was born in Harlem. An excellent student who read and wrote from an early age, he developed his writing with the encouragement of his high school teacher, poet Countee Cullen. Influenced by his stepfather, a factory worker and Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin originally planned on becoming a minister himself; he composed and delivered his own sermons in a storefront church at the age of fourteen and developed a style that would influence much of his later work. After graduating from high school, he moved to Greenwich Village and began to write full time. His book reviews and essays in The New Leader, The Nation, and Partisan Review, along with the aid of author Richard Wright, helped earn him a fellowship, but his career did not blossom until he moved to France in 1948, where he wrote essays critiquing America's failed promises. Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957, chiefly to join in the struggle for African American civil rights. Not surprisingly, he emerged as one of the movement's most vocal participants, composing powerful commentaries in a style that incorporated the rhythms of gospel and the themes of preaching. His first novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and The Amen Corner (1955), explore both his painful relationship with his stepfather and his search for his racial heritage. Notes of a Native Son (1955), The Fire Next Time (1963), and "Going to Meet the Man" (1965) helped establish him as a leading black voice of the 1950s and 1960s.

In most of his works, Baldwin intertwines issues of race and sexuality. Giovanni's Room (1956), for instance, explores a homosexual relationship between a white American expatriate and a young Italian man. Similarly, Another Country (1962) ruminates about what it means to be black and homosexual in a white society. Baldwin explained his diverse thematic interests this way: "I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else." Although Baldwin's move to France was in response to discrimination and bigotry in the United States, he never considered himself an expatriate. Rather, he referred to himself as a "commuter" with active and vocal interest in racial issues in his homeland. He became one of the most prolific spokespersons for black America, and Notes of a Native Son remains to this day a key text of the civil rights movement.

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