Black History Month Profiles
James Baldwin is a well known African American author, playwright, poet, essayist, activist, and public speaker. He was only a second generation free man, but the life and legacy he created for himself transcended the realm of what was seemingly possible for a Black man in the mid 1900s.
Although most recognize the name James Baldwin, and can perhaps even name a few of his best sellers, the true impact that James Baldwin had on society and the civil rights movement is not nearly discussed enough. The truth is, James Baldwin was a brilliant mind way before his name was ever recognized worldwide. His love for reading, writing, and stories was developed at a young age as he spent a lot of time in the library expanding his mind. He felt as though his mind was the best weapon he had and he made sure to sharpen his tools before going out into the war zone.
Before Baldwin Was
James Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, New York. Raised by his mother and stepfather, a very religious man, Baldwin soon took after him and briefly became a preacher. It was during this time that he really acknowledged his love for writing and dedicated himself, and his life, to pursuing writing. Baldwin grew up like most Black boys during that time. He rose from poverty working on the railroads.
In his early twenties, Baldwin was a freelance writer composing book reviews. After living in the United States as a Black man he decided to pick up everything and move to Paris. This started a trend for Baldwin where he lived in other countries in order to write about his experience in that country compared to the one he was born in.
The Literary Giant
In 1953, James Baldwin released his very first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain. This first book was semi-autobiographical, meaning Baldwin pulled from his own life story but also incorporated elements of fiction. It was about a young man, whom he named John Grimes, and his relationship with his country, family, and the church. When Go Tell It On The Mountain was first released it was not nearly as popular as it is today. Today, it is known as one of the great classics because of the way that Baldwin so eloquently captures what it was like to grow up in Harlem in the 1930s.
A couple years later, while still traveling around the world, Baldwin published his first book of essays in 1955 entitled, Notes of a Native Son. This consisted of 10 essays that discussed race relations in not only America, but also Europe. A year later, his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was released. This book was very controversial because it tackled the subject of homosexuality, a topic that was very taboo at that time, especially in black communities. James Baldwin was an openly gay man and he was not afraid to challenge societal norms and what was deemed acceptable both in his personal life as well as in his writing.
The Fire Within
In the following years, James Baldwin’s work became much more popular with several publications becoming bestsellers. A few notable pieces are Sonny’s Blues, Another Country, and Fifth Avenue, Uptown. He also published several collections of essays and short stories such as The Fire Next Time, Going to Meet the Man, and most significantly Nobody Knows My Name.
When discussing this set of essays in an article in TIME Magazine, writer Eddie Glaude Jr. states that,
It was his answer to how we might respond to the collapse of the Black-freedom movement and to the country’s failures. At the level of form, the book mirrors the fragmenting of memory by trauma. He anticipates the beginnings of mass incarceration and offers a scathing criticism of the way the criminal-justice system crushed Black people with intention.
This was a groundbreaking publication for Baldwin, and one of his most talked about works to this day.
Baldwin on the Big Screen
Two of the main Baldwin works that most people recognize are If Beale Street Could Talk and I Am Not Your Negro. This is because both works have been turned into major motion pictures in recent years. Although If Beale Street Could Talk still touches on race relations in America, a recurring theme in Baldwin’s work, it is also a beautiful and inspiring love story that is timeless.
Many people do not know, but I Am Not Your Negro was a book that Baldwin was working on exploring racism through the eyes of three of his dearest friends: Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin was friends with all three of them, and he was deeply impacted by their assassinations. In fact, these deaths had such an impact on Baldwin’s mental health that some speculate they caused him to spiral into depression and attempt to take his own life.
James Baldwin was more than a talented writer and speaker. He held a mirror up to America and constantly worked to reveal America’s racism not only to itself, but also the world at large. During Black History Month, we want to highlight and recognize those that paved the way and contributed to the growth we have made as a society today. We still have so much growing to do as a country, but if it were not for individuals like James Baldwin, we would have so much further to go.