“Baldwin uses words the way the sea uses waves; to flow and to beat, to advance and retreat, to rise and take a bow in the act of disappearing. The thought becomes poetry and the poetry illuminates the thought."- Langston Hughes on James Baldwin
James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, the eldest of a family of nine children, was an American novelist and Civil Rights activist. He was a passionate intellectual and courageous writer, born black, impoverished, gay and gifted.
Baldwin grew up in a very strict and religious home with a father who was a fundamentalist preacher. In one interview, he spoke about his father being very rigid and wanting the same power he saw that the white race possessed: the power to own property and to own businesses. “And this is what in effect killed him,” Baldwin said in reference to his father. “Because there was something in him which you could not bend; he could only be broken.”
During the early part of his life, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, “Those three years in the pulpit — I didn’t realize it then — that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church on Baldwin’s style, its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
Growing up, Baldwin would frequent the public library in his neighborhood 3-4 times a week. He read every single book that was there. In an instinctive way, he knew that what was happening in those books was also happening all around him. He tried to make a connection between the books he saw and the life he lived. Baldwin said, “It was books that taught me, the things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me with all of the people who were alive and who had ever been alive.” By the time he was 14, he knew he wanted to be a writer and he wrote all the time, calling writing his “great consolation”.
Baldwin would later join the pantheon of writers with several published works including, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956), The Fire Next Time (1963) and several others. Many of his books were written during the time he spent in Paris. Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on his life and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America.
During the last ten years of his life, Baldwin produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young. By his death in 1987, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality.