James Baldwin

James Baldwin

James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) was an acclaimed American novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and social critic. His novels and plays focus and throw light upon personal dilemmas while simultaneously bringing into play the social and psychological pressures that not only blacks underwent but additionally; homosexuals and bisexuals. His themes and plots usually fixated upon his characters failing to accept these social outcasts due to some misplaced morals.

While still an infant his mother divorced his father and moved with him to Manhattan, New York. Here she remarried a preacher and he spent most of his time taking care of his younger brothers and sisters. His step father; who James Baldwin in his essays refers to as ‘his father’ treated him with singular harshness as compared to his brothers and sisters. On his 19th birthday in 1943 his youngest brother was born and it was also his father’s funeral who had suffered from tuberculosis. It was also the day of the Harlem riots of 1943 which had a major influence in his writings later especially ‘Notes of a native son’. In middle school he was influenced by Countee Cullen; the poet who was also the leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Here he similarly was encouraged by his math teacher to take up the post of editor in the school newspaper The Douglass Pilot.

At the age of 14 he turned to religion as his haven from his traumatic childhood, he joined the Pentecostal Church at and soon became a junior minister. By 17 he was disillusioned and came to view his time with the church merely as an outlet from his personal crisis. He later on blamed Christianity for reinforcing slavery and promising rewards or salvation for the oppressed in the afterlife. This religious experience influenced his views and shaped his later writings.

‘Go tell it on the mountain’ Baldwin’s first semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1953 received international acclaim for his insights and personal experience on the themes of humanity, race and religion. Later on when talking about his first book he said; Mountains is the book that he had to write no matter what. And it helped him deal with what hurt him the most in his childhood which was his relationship with his father.

His second novel ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was published in 1956 which ventured into the then unchartered territory; explored homosexuality a then taboo subject. He continued to explore this subject and the love between two men in ‘Just above my head’ published in 1978. He also used these books and ‘Another Country’ to explore interracial relationships and its intricacies and impact on the lovers. Baldwin was open and refused to hid his relationship with both men and women. He believed that these rigid categories as dictated by society was just another method of limiting individual freedom. He believed that viewing homosexuality as an aberration was rather a sign of mental stagnation.

Baldwin’s true genius was seen and acknowledged through his essays, which helped place him as one of the greatest writers of that time. Digging deep into his own troubled past he provided a true yet harsh look at the young blacks experience in America in ‘Notes of a Native Son’ and ‘Nobody knows my Name’; which hit the bestsellers and sold over a million copies. This helped Baldwin not only emerge but be accepted as one of the leading voices on civil rights. He also went on to try and educate the white Americans not only what it meant to be black in a white society; but how the African-American community viewed them.

Even though his literary fame diminished in his later years; Baldwin went on release new materials in a variety of forms. He also delved into poetry and released a collection ‘Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems’. Along with this he also continued to spend time sharing his views as a college professor. James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987 never wanting to be a leader or a spokesperson but to simply ‘bear witness to the truth’.

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