This Day In Writing History
On August 2nd, 1924, the legendary African-American writer James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York. When he was a baby, his mother married a Pentecostal preacher, Rev. David Baldwin, who adopted him. Although he himself became a Pentecostal preacher at the age of 14, James Baldwin's relationship with his abusive stepfather was tempestuous. Three years later, at 17, James rejected his religion and left home. By this time, he had recognized and accepted his homosexuality.
Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village and enrolled at the New School, a progressive college. There, he joined the intellectual community and determined to become a writer. He began writing short stories, essays, and book reviews for publication. After college, he kept writing and continued to support himself by doing odd jobs.
In 1948, the 24-year-old James Baldwin moved to Paris, France, not only to escape the venomous climate of racism and homophobia in America, but also to find an outlet where he could be accepted as a serious writer, and not "merely a Negro writer." He found a place for himself in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His writings would appear regularly in anthologies and literary magazines, and he would soon become one of the most influential writers of the time.
Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953. The semi-autobiographical novel told the story of a John, a 14-year old black boy who despises his preacher stepfather, Gabriel. Devoutly religious and fiercely strict, Gabriel proves himself to be a hypocrite. He sleeps with another woman, leaves her pregnant, then steals his wife's savings to buy his mistress' silence.
Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), was a groundbreaking, controversial work that established him as a serious writer. It wasn't an African-American novel. In fact, there are no black characters in it. Based on the author's own struggles to understand and accept his homosexuality, it told the story of David, an American expatriate living in Paris. His fiancee, Hella, is back in the United States.
David has left college and come to France to find himself. He's troubled by his memories of a homosexual relationship he had as an adolescent, and cannot accept that he might be gay. Nearly penniless, David has dinner with an older gay friend, Jacques, and plans to ask him for money. They eat at a gay bar owned by Guillaume. The new bartender is an Italian named Giovanni. He had met Guillaume at the theater. Giovanni is troubled by Guillaume's volatility. When David and Giovanni become friends, Jacques advises David not to be ashamed of his true feelings.
David and Giovanni have an affair, and David, needing a place to stay, moves into Giovanni's room. But when Hella writes to tell him that she's returning to Paris, David decides to leave Giovanni and marry her, fearing that staying with Giovanni would mean sacrificing his manhood. A heartbroken Giovanni takes up with Jacques. Meanwhile, David, determined to prove to himself that he's not gay, sleeps with a female acquaintance, then dumps her.
The novel ends on a dark and haunting note. Giovanni is convicted and sentenced to death for killing his ex-boss Guillaume, and David's fiancee Hella returns to France - and discovers him having a fling with a sailor. Telling David that she suspected he was gay all along, Hella leaves him in disgust. David is left to come to terms with his homosexuality and to deal with his guilt over abandoning Giovanni, which led to his ex-lover's tragic fate.
After a nearly 15-year exile, James Baldwin returned to America in 1962, encouraged by the civil rights movement, which was rapidly gaining momentum. Already established as the most influential African-American writer of the time, Baldwin joined the movement, teaming up with other great African-American writers, artists, and performers, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, poet Maya Angelou, singer-actor Harry Belafonte, singer-pianist Nina Simone, painter Beauford Delaney, poet Langston Hughes, and novelist Richard Wright.
Unfortunately, Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin's criticism of Wright's novel Native Son (1940) - considered one of the most important novels ever written by an African-American author - ended their friendship. Baldwin believed that Wright's novel was more a work of protest fiction than a serious, artistic novel. It was merely a literary criticism, not a personal attack, but Baldwin was unable to convince Wright of the true intent of his essay.
James Baldwin also became friends with the leaders of the civil rights movement, including Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Another leader, Eldridge Cleaver, launched a vicious homophobic attack on Baldwin in his essay collection, Soul On Ice (1968). When Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam became a major force in the civil rights movement, Baldwin met with him. He found Muhammad's racist views of whites repugnant and came to regard Islam with the same contempt he held for Christianity.
Later, Baldwin joined CORE (the Congress for Racial Equality) and became a lecturer for the organization, touring the Southern states to speak out against racism and in favor of equality and civil rights. He was a prominent figure at the legendary March on Washington of August 28th, 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr. would give his famous I Have a Dream speech. In 1968, Baldwin signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, refusing to pay his taxes in protest against the Vietnam War.
James Baldwin returned to France in the 1970s and would remain there for the rest of his life. His experiences in the turbulent landscape of 1960s America would have a huge impact on his writings. His novels would become epic in scope and more experimental. He would also publish collections of short stories and essays. Racism, homophobia, and homosexuality would be recurring themes in his writings.
He died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63.
Quote Of The Day
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone... they will be forced to deal with pain.” - James Baldwin
Today's video features a 1980 interview with James Baldwin. Enjoy!