Celebrating creative black trailblazers for #BHM; meet…
Name: James Baldwin
Born: August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987, (Harlem, New York)
Creative Discipline: Novelist, playwright, poet, and social critic.
Known for: Many of Baldwin's essays, such as the collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore the palpable, yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America.
When James Baldwin was an infant, his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, divorced his father because of drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York, where she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. James spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At age ten, he was beaten by a gang of police officers.
At age 14, Baldwin joined the Pentecostal Church and became a Pentecostal preacher. The difficulties of life, as well as his abusive stepfather, who was a preacher, delivered him to the church. During a euphoric prayer meeting, Baldwin converted, and soon became junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He drew larger crowds than his father did.
At 17 though, Baldwin came to view Christianity as falsely premised.
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin left the United States and departed to Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice, he fled in order to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context and to be read as not "merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer".
In 1953, Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, was published. Baldwin's first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. Baldwin continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known.
Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, stirred controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work: despite the reading public's expectations that he would publish works dealing with the African American experience, Giovanni's Room is predominantly about white characters. Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters.
Baldwin returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 while the Civil Rights Act of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte.
By the Spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover. Nonetheless, he rejected the label civil rights activist, or that he had participated in a civil rights movement, instead agreeing with Malcolm X's assertion that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one's civil rights.
In 1987, Baldwin died and in 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed him on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans. No Name in the Street, also discussed his own experience in the context of the later 1960s, specifically the assassinations of three of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Article by Lucy G / 9th October 2012
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