“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” brilliant words spoken by novelist, essayist, poet, public speaker, social activist and one of 20th century’s greatest writers, James Baldwin. Whether he was working in Paris, New York or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in a white America. In various essays, novels, plays, poems and speeches, the fluent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of Black American life and the saving power of universal love. He broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works which highlight the Black experience. Both Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and Another Country (1962) were immediate bestsellers. Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953; autobiography), Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Fire Next Time (1963) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) which would later become an Academy Award-winning film adaptation in 2018.
James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2,1924 in Harlem, New York to Emma Berdis Jones. His biological father was never revealed to him. At the age of three, his mother married David Baldwin, a staunch Baptist Preacher. The was the oldest of eight siblings, James. As a child growing up in an economically depraved area, he contemplated about ways to escape his circumstances. By the time he turned 14, he spent most of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
In 1942, after graduating from high school, he had to put his college plans on hold to help support his family, which included seven younger siblings. He took whatever work he could find, including laying railroad tracks for the U.S. Army in New Jersey.
During this time, James frequently encountered discrimination, being turned away from restaurants, bars and other establishments because of his race. After being fired from the railroad job, he sought other work and struggled to make ends meet.
He later found work as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews for a couple of years. Eventually, he caught the attention of the well-known novelist, Richard Wright. Although James had not yet finished his debut novel, Wright helped him secure a grant with which he could support himself as a writer. In 1948, at age 24, James left for Paris, where he hoped to find enough distance from the American racism he grew up in to write about it.
After writing a number of pieces for various magazines, he went to a small village in Switzerland to finish his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. Published in 1953, the autobiographical work highlighted his experience growing up in Harlem. The passion and depth with which he described the struggles of Black Americans were unlike anything that had been written. His debut novel would go on to become an American classic.
Over the next ten years, he moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), as well as two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). The essays explored racial tension with eloquence and unprecedented honesty, while the novels dealt with what was considered taboo themes (homosexuality and interracial relationships). By describing life as he knew it, James created socially relevant, intellectually penetrating literature. Both Nobody Knows My Name and Another Country became instant bestsellers.
Being abroad gave James a perspective on the life he’d left behind and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” Ironically, his travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times after seeing a young girl Dorothy Counts, braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, he returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963) which became a bestseller. It was so incendiary that it landed James on the cover of TIME Magazine. For many, Baldwin’s clarion call for human equality became an early and essential voice in the civil rights movement. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained an important figure in that struggle throughout the 1960s.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, he decided to return to St. Paul de Vence, France, where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk. Published in 1974, the critically acclaimed novel would later become a film adaption in 2018 and earn an Academy Award.
During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He also turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young.
On December 1, 1987, he died at age 63 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City. At the time of Jame’s death, he was working on an unfinished manuscript called Remember This House, a memoir of his personal recollections of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The manuscript became the basis for the 2016 documentary film I Am Not Your Negro which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Upon his death, close friend and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison wrote a eulogy for him that appeared in The New York Times. In the eulogy, entitled “Life in His Language”, she credits James as being her literary inspiration and the person who showed her the true potential of writing.
James Baldwin was one of the most quintessential vocal advocates for equality and his extraordinary literary works will remain a vital part of history.
- 1953 Go Tell It on the Mountain (semi-autobiographical)
- 1956 Giovanni’s Room
- 1962 Another Country
- 1968 Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone
- 1974 If Beale Street Could Talk
- 1979 Just Above My Head
Essays & Short Stories:
- 1953. “Stranger in the Village”. Harper’s Magazine.
- 1954. “Gide as Husband and Homosexual”. The New Leader.
- 1956. “Faulkner and Desegregation”. Partisan Review.
- 1957. “Sonny’s Blues”. Partisan Review.
- 1957. “Princes and Powers”. Encounter.
- 1958. “The Hard Kind of Courage”. Harper’s Magazine.
- 1959. “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American”. The New York Times Book Review.
- 1959. “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”. Partisan Review.
- 1960. “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem”. Esquire.
- 1960. “The Precarious Vogue of Ingmar Bergman”. Esquire.
- 1961. “A Negro Assays the Negro Mood”. New York Times Magazine.
- 1961. “The Survival of Richard Wright”. Reporter.
- 1961. “Richard Wright”. Encounter.
- 1962. “Letter from a Region of My Mind”. The New Yorker.
- 1962. “My Dungeon Shook”. The Progressive.
- 1963. “A Talk to Teachers”
- 1967. “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White”. New York Times Magazine.
- 1976. The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay published by Dial Press.
Honors & Awards:
- Guggenheim Fellowship, 1954.
- Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust Award
- Foreign Drama Critics Award
- George Polk Memorial Award, 1963
- MacDowell fellowships: 1954, 1958, 1960
- Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, 1986
“Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.”
“You have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”
“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
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