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Eloquent Voice of the Civil-Rights Movement

August 2, 1924 - November 30, 1987

James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. Born out of wedlock, he never knew his real father and was raised by a step-father who, ironically, was both an abusive father and a minister. One of nine children, in a family filled with strife and great poverty, Baldwin became his own man at an early age. Pushed into "store-front" preaching by his step-father, at 14, Baldwin did in fact preach at the Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. Eloquent in the pulpit, his oratory skills came naturally, if not divinely. It was here he gained the confidence he needed to succeed, the confidence to break away, to escape, to be himself. After high school, Baldwin did escape in a sense, at least from his father's harshness, but not yet the world's.

He moved to Greenwich village and while working a variety of odd jobs, Baldwin began to write. In the 40's, Baldwin wrote about "store-front churches", had his first encounter with the FBI, struggled with his sexual identity, the suicide of a friend and racism; all enough for cultivation of a talent, which he believed there was "a conspiracy against." His writing remained rejected and unpublished except for book reviews and essays in journals like Partisan Review." When his essay, In my Father's House, was rejected, Baldwin fled to Europe in disgust. He lived there for ten years, in Istanbul, London and Paris, where he fell in love with the painter, Lucien Happersberger. It's also where he finished his first novel, the auto-biographical, Go Tell it on the Mountain. A story almost identical to his own, with a 14-year-old protaganist and an abusive and brutal step-father. It's also during this time that Baldwin takes a trip to Switzerland and encounters children who consider him,

an exotic rarity and shout Neger! Neger! ...
and Baldwin sees... when there was a day...when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans....strolling, say, into a market place and seeing black men for the first time.

His second novel, Giovanni's Room was a soul searching insight by a white American expatriate coming to terms with his own homosexuality, much as Baldwin was, and was not well received. This reverberated his earlier essay on homosexuality, The Preservation of Innocence, where he concluded that,

homophobia represented a heterosexual panic arising from a lack of imagination and an inability to appreciate diversity.

In 1957, Baldwin returned to New York City, where he split his time between writing and being an active physical participant in the civil rights movement. The two didn't always work well together though; Many other activists frowned on his homosexuality and the writings there-of and Baldwin was not welcomed as a speaker at the monumental 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. But it didn't impede neither his writing nor his rhetoric.

If Blacks and whites come together and love one another and if all peoples of all shades do this then we will treat each other differently and we will treat our children differently.And hatred, quite simply, may cease to exist.

An avowed pacifist, Baldwin troubled with the different tactics played out between the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Muslim activist Malcolm X. Baldwin tried to approach this in his play Blues for Mister Charlie, by presenting the anger of the black youth, the cruelty of the white man, and the desire for understanding between the two from the elderly. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin pleads to the world for happiness and forgiveness, not for himself but for humankind. But after the assassination of King, Baldwin felt futile about any attempt to bring change. Continuing to write, no matter where he went, he left for Paris again, making it his permanent home.

In 1979, Baldwin developed "a heart malfunction", but it wasn't until 1981 that he had his first surgery. The weaker he became, the "zestier" his determination. He made intermittent trips to New York to teach from and about "the black perspective." After three colostomy and two arterial operations, Baldwin still wrote, as his Evidence of Things Not Seen can attest to. But on November 30, 1987, at the Paris home of his partner, Lucien Happserberger, James Baldwin passed away.

Baldwin's dream was "to see something of himself live beyond the pain that he lived in...If I've done that, then I've accomplished something in life." And that he did. We could all hope for as much...

Novels and Essays by James Baldwin

Articles by James Baldwin


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