Best-selling author and activist James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. His eloquence and passion on race relations in America made him an important voice in the late 1950s and early 1960s throughout the United States and, later, throughout much of western Europe.
“I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart,” said Baldwin while reflecting on himself as a student. “I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.”
Baldwin grew up in poverty, the oldest of nine children. He was born to a young single mother, Emma Jones, who married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin when he was 3 years old. Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. At 14, Baldwin followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a youth minister.
After graduating high school, Baldwin worked various odd jobs and moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood that was popular among artists and writers. He became friends with writer Richard Wright, and through Wright, Baldwin was able to secure a fellowship in 1945, which help him support himself as a writer.
Baldwin left for Paris in 1948, where he hoped to find enough distance from American society to write about it. After writing for various magazines, Baldwin went to Switzerland to finish his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. He moved around from Paris to New York to Istanbul, and during this time he published some of his most famous works; Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and Another Country (1962).
By the early 1960s, Baldwin returned to the United States to be an active participant in the civil rights movement. While traveling throughout the South, he began working on an explosive new piece about black identity, The Fire Next Time (1963). Baldwin experienced great loss during this time and would lose friends such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to racial hatred.
Baldwin continued to write novels and essays up until his death in St. Paul de Vence, France on December 1, 1987. The writer who explored issues from race relations to sexuality died due to stomach cancer. In 2016, filmmaker Raoul Peck released the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” The Oscar-nominated film was adapted from an uncompleted manuscript of Baldwin’s, “Remember This House.”
Listen to a series of podcasts by Karen Hunter breaking down a 1960 interview with Baldwin on what it means to be Black in America: