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James Baldwin

The novels and essays of James Baldwin, one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, captured and articulated the changing mood of the United States during a time of significant social change. Baldwin is famous for exploring the nuances of the African American experience and voicing LGBTQ+ themes well before the start of the gay rights movement in the United States. His novels, including Go Tell It on the Mountain and If Beale Street Could Talk, and his essays, including the collection Notes of a Native Son, are just a few examples of the many notable works he produced.

James Baldwin: Biography

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924. His mother's name was Emma Berdis Jones. Baldwin would never know his biological father, and his mother raised him alone until he was three years old. In 1927, she married James' stepfather, David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher from New Orleans.

Young James Baldwin began attending Public School 24 in Harlem at five years old, where his teachers quickly noted his intelligence. Throughout his school years, Baldwin remained well-supported by teachers and mentors that noticed his potential and did their best to nurture it. In 1941, he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.

Young Adulthood

To help support his family, Baldwin began to work immediately following his graduation. His mother and stepfather had an additional eight children, and the health of David Baldwin, who was considerably older than his wife, was beginning to decline. James Baldwin held various jobs, including constructing a United States Army depot, laying military train tracks in New Jersey, and later working at a restaurant in Greenwich Village.

Baldwin had begun to notice his attraction to men during high school and was able to further explore his sexuality in the more liberal environment of Greenwich Village. He bussed tables at Calypso Restaurant, a famously de-segregated Caribbean restaurant and community gathering place frequented by various artists, musicians, and intellectuals.

In 1945, Baldwin met Richard Wright, one of the most influential African American writers of the time. Baldwin gave Wright the manuscript of what would become his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Wright was sufficiently impressed to recommend the aspiring Baldwin for a fellowship.

In 1948, James Baldwin was twenty-four years old and disillusioned with American racism. With forty dollars in his pocket, Baldwin left the United States for Paris, where he would live for the next nine years.

Paris and Literary Career

In Paris, James Baldwin lived with friends or stayed in hotels; he was poor for the duration of his stay, but he appeared to be content. He wrote numerous essays, including "The Negro in Paris" and "Equal in Paris," reflecting on his experience in France as a Black man and how it differed from his experience in the United States.

Post-war France was a central hub for writers, artists, and intellectuals, and Baldwin was quickly absorbed into Paris' Left Bank culture. He became acquainted with figures such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Truman Capote, and his work was published in various magazines and anthologies. Most importantly, Baldwin could escape the racism he experienced in the United States. He was able to view from afar the racial conflicts at the heart of American society, a perspective that would influence his later writings and involvement in the civil rights movement.

Baldwin's published essays from his years in Paris also included two significant critiques of fellow American author Richard Wright, "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949) and "Many Thousands Gone" (1951).

Baldwin also wrote and published some of his best-known works in Paris. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain that had been in progress for close to ten years, was published in 1953. The controversial Giovanni's Room (1956) and the essay collection Notes of A Native Son (1955) were also published during Baldwin's time in Paris.

Return to the United States and Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement

In 1957, James Baldwin returned to the United States. The Partisan Review had invited him to cover the desegregation of schools in the Southern states, taking the writer to states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

James Baldwin came to be known as one of the most important voices of the civil rights movement. His essays eloquently unpacked issues of race, class, and identity in the United States, and his books Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963) both sold more than a million copies.

He also became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and traveled the country, giving lectures at universities on the topic of racial inequality.

In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin: Books

The following are some of James Baldwin's published books, including novels, essays, and short stories.

Novels

  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) is James Baldwin's first novel, published in 1953. It is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of John Grimes, a teenage boy growing up in Harlem, New York City, during the 1930s. John's father is a preacher. He is portrayed as a violent and difficult man, similar to Baldwin's stepfather. The story is set over the course of one 24 hour period, although flashbacks and changes in point of view sometimes take the reader into the past. The novel deals with themes of religion, racism, and coming-of-age and is often cited as one of the best American novels of the 20th century.
  • Giovanni's Room (1956) is James Baldwin's second novel. It is a story about an American man living in Paris who falls in love with Giovanni, an Italian bartender, while his girlfriend is away from the city. The novel was controversial at the time of its publication due to its frank portrayal of a homosexual relationship (this was 1956, well before the gay rights movement). It remains a canonical example of queer American literature.
  • Baldwin's other novels include Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979).

A 2018 film adaptation of Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk was nominated for several Golden Globes and Academy Awards.

Essay and Short Story Collections

  • The collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955), is one of James Baldwin's most valued works. The title is a reference to both Richard Wright's Native Son (1940) and Henry James' Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). The book is divided into three sections and includes several previously published essays; some are personal essays, such as detailing the relationship between Baldwin and his stepfather, and some are critical, such as Baldwin's critiques of Richard Wright's works. All of the essays, however, offer sharp social commentary and cultural analysis. Baldwin delves into the experience of both Black and white Americans to examine the complex, multifaceted nature of race in the United States.
  • Baldwin's other essay collections include Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), and The Price of the Ticket (1985).
  • James Baldwin also has a short story collection titled Going to Meet the Man (1965).

The 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro was based on an unfinished manuscript of Baldwin's essays called Remember This House.

James Baldwin: Poetry and Playwriting

Although he is best known for his novels and essays, James Baldwin also wrote poetry and a handful of plays. His only full-length collection of poetry is titled Jimmy's Blues and was published in 1985, just two years before his death. Baldwin's plays include The Amen Corner (1954) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964).

James Baldwin: Quotes

There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain.

(Giovanni's Room, 1956)

When Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, was published in 1956, it was controversial for dealing with homosexual themes when practically no other mainstream writers were doing so. In this quote, an older gay man, Jacques, criticizes the American protagonist, David, for the way he plays with the feelings of his fiancee, Hella, and his Italian lover, Giovanni.

I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.

(Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

This quote comes from the title essay of Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, his first book of essays, and one of his most important contributions to English literature. In the piece, the author describes his tumultuous relationship with his father. Here, Baldwin expresses the hatred he still felt for his father as he was dying and the realization that the hatred was obscuring his pain.

Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.

(The Fire Next Time, 1963)

This quote comes from the second of two essays in The Fire Next Time, called "Down on the Cross: Letter from a Region in my Mind." The essay reflects on the role of religion in Baldwin's own life and the larger African American community; Baldwin argues that Christianity ultimately does a disservice to the African American community because it assumes a white God to whom Black people remain subordinate. In this quote, Baldwin expresses the argument that the color of someone's skin is only important because it is assigned political importance. Nothing human or personal equates value with skin color, only this arbitrary political assignment intended to maintain a certain distribution of power.

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.

(Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, 1961)

This quote comes from the essay "Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem" from the collection Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. In this essay, Baldwin describes his childhood neighborhood, Harlem, and the lives of those who live there. He describes poverty and the means by which the poor are trapped within it. This quote refers to this idea as Baldwin speaks of the higher prices and lower quality of goods available for sale in Harlem.

James Baldwin - Key takeaways

  • James Baldwin was born in Harlem, in New York City, on August 2, 1924.

  • His gift for writing was noticed early on by his teachers, and he had several mentors that nurtured and supported his talent.

  • James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948.

  • His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953.

  • Baldwin also published the book of essays Notes of a Native Son (1955) and the novel Giovanni's Room (1956) while living in Paris.

  • He returned to the United States in 1957, where he became one of the leading voices of the civil rights movement.

  • Baldwin continued to split his time between France and the United States for the remainder of his life.

  • James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987. He was 63 years old.

Frequently Asked Questions about James Baldwin

James Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, and activist. He is considered one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. He is well known for his novels, essays, and involvement in the American civil rights movement.

James Baldwin was born in New York City on August 2, 1924.

James Baldwin is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in New York.


James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died on December 1, 1987.

James Baldwin wrote numerous essays during the civil rights movement that helped raise awareness of the racial oppression taking place. He also toured the country giving lectures on racial inequality, and he reported on the subject for various publications.


Final James Baldwin Quiz

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Why did James Baldwin move to Paris?

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To escape the racial discrimination he experienced in the United States.

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What is the name of James Baldwin’s first novel?

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Go Tell It on the Mountain

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What American writer was initially Baldwin’s mentor but whose work he later criticized in multiple essays?


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Richard Wright

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Where was James Baldwin born?

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Harlem, New York City

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Which is NOT a novel written by James Baldwin?

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Native Son

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When did James Baldwin die?

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December 1, 1987

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When did James Baldwin return to the United States from Paris?


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1957

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Why was Giovanni’s Room controversial when it was published?

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Because of its homoerotic themes.

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What was the name of James Baldwin’s mother?

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Emma Berdis Jones

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From which New York City high school did Baldwin graduate?

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De Witt Clinton High School

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Where does the title Go Tell It on the Mountain come from?

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It comes from the an old gospel song of the same name.

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What autobiographical elements can be found in Go Tell It on the Mountain?

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Elements of Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem and his relationship with his father.

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What is the name of John Grimes’ mother?


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Elizabeth.

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What is Part Two of Go Tell It on the Mountain called?

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The Prayers of the Saints

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When and where does Go Tell It on the Mountain take place?

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In Harlem, New York City, in the 1930s.

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How many parts is Go Tell It on the Mountain divided into?

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Three parts.

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Who is the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain?

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John Grimes

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Which is NOT a character from Go Tell It on the Mountain?

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Sally

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In what year was Go Tell It on the Mountain published?

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1953

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Who wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain?

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James Baldwin

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