UPDATED: 7:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 2, 2021
Novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin, who would have turned 97 years old on Monday, stands out as one of America’s most-treasured wordsmiths, notable for his bold ruminations on race, sexuality and other subjects considered too controversial for the time of his creative peak.
As a homosexual man, some of Baldwin’s work focused on not only the complexities of the role of Blacks in America but also that of gay men who faced atrocious criticism and prejudice during his climb into the literary ranks.
Baldwin and his mother, Emma, moved to Harlem, leaving behind his father who struggled with drug abuse. She would marry preacher David Baldwin and the family lived under harsh conditions.
Baldwin’s stepfather was said to be abusive to both him and his siblings, and when he died in 1943 while James was a teen, Harlem rioted on the day of his funeral – an event that shaped much of Baldwin’s writing style.
An avid reader, Baldwin worked as an editor for his high school’s magazine, continuing his studies at the New School University. Forever intellectually curious, Baldwin would challenge societal norms and even his own involvement in the Christian church.
Baldwin would denounce much of what he learned during his time viewing his stepfather in the pulpit, although he never declared himself an atheist. Much of Baldwin’s criticism of the church stemmed from its use by slave owners to oppress Blacks. He would, however, say that religion also had the power to liberate the oppressed as well.
Watch Baldwin being interviewed here:
Baldwin left New York in 1948, becoming an expatriate and finding his voice in Paris, France. Baldwin found acceptance overseas as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. In Paris, he thrived and was published in several literary anthologies, joining fellow writer Richard Wright as an essayist during his earlier stays in Europe.
Baldwin’s most celebrated novel was his 1953 debut, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” a semi-autobiographical novel set in 1930s Harlem. The book takes a close look at the role of the church in the lives of Black Americans, once again examining the duality of the lens through which Baldwin viewed Christianity. The novel has remained a favorite among readers and has achieved iconic status.
Baldwin’s second novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” sparked controversy and criticism for its homoerotic themes and the fact that Baldwin made White characters the centerpiece of the book. His 1955 collection of essays “Notes Of A Native Son” still resonate strongly to this day.
The Civil Rights Movement was another passion of Baldwin’s during the turbulent 1960s. Baldwin would align himself with the movement via lengthy essays done in his usual forward style. His essay “Down At The Cross” would be published in The New Yorker in two large issues in 1963, which eventually led to Baldwin gracing the cover of TIME magazine that same year while he toured the South, speaking on Civil Rights issues.
Baldwin’s long essay “No Name In The Street” touched on the killings of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin is also credited for bringing Nina Simone into the movement along with poet Langston Hughes and “Raisin In The Sun” author Lorraine Hansberry.
Baldwin passed away at the age 63 from stomach cancer in France, where he lived in his later years. He is buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.
Baldwin’s legacy continues to live in a variety of ways: Author Toni Morrison edited and curated a collection of Baldwin’s writings. Additionally, Baldwin’s work is a staple in many American Literature classes in high schools and colleges. The United States Postal Service honored Baldwin in 2005 with a first-class postage stamp, which also featured a short biography revealed after the peeling of the stamp.
Baldwin’s fearlessness as a writer contrasted greatly with the struggles he faced as a Black man in America burdened with the looming specter of his sexuality. He triumphed despite those barriers and continues to influence young minds and readers to this day.
Happy Birthday, James Baldwin!