James Baldwin, one of America’s finest writers, was bom in Harlem during the elec¬ trifying Harlem Renaissance (see no. 36). Beginning to preach at age 14, following his father Rev. David Baldwin’s example, Bald¬ win was using his youth to pull an audience when he took over as editor of his high school newspaper.
After spending much of his youth in libraries writing plays, short stories and poetry, he finally connected with other young people interested in reading and writing. He soon fell away from the church and devoted himself to writing.
Baldwin left home early and soon met novelist Richard Wright (see no. 69), who helped him secure a Eugene Saxon Memori¬ al Trust Award. Baldwin had already begun his first novel, which was published in 1953 as Go Tell It On the Mountain, but put it aside to complete a short story, “Previous Condition,” which was published in 1948.
Though his talent was evident at a young age, Baldwin lived with a sense of conflict that drove him from the US to Paris, where he found it easier to write honestly about the difficulties of being black in white intel¬ lectual circles.
His first published essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” was written in his first year in Paris, but it sharply criti¬ cized Richard Wright’s Native Son and sev¬ ered their friendship. Baldwin had a ner¬ vous breakdown due to the stress of losing his mentor, which was intensified by his financial difficulties. He recuperated in Switzerland, where he finally completed Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Baldwin soon returned to Europe to begin Another Country and the brilliant play The Amen Comer. He put them aside, and wrote what would become his own favorite novel, Giovani’s Room. It was fol¬ lowed by the collection of essays Nobody Knows My Name (I960), Another Country, completed in 1962, his exquisite and famous work, The Fire Next Time (1963)
and No Name in the Street (1972). Alto¬ gether, Baldwin wrote 16 books, along with two plays produced on Broadway, The Amen Comer and Blues for Mr. Charlie.Even while writing in the 1950s and 60s, Baldwin was actively involved in the social upheaval of the civil rights movement.
He worked closely with civil rights groups where his influential name could be helpful. Devoted to nonviolence and the mainte¬ nance of personal integrity even in the face of ugliness, Baldwin urged African-Ameri¬ cans to stand above their oppressors and maintain a sense of pride stronger than the insult of racism.
Baldwin continued to write until his death, finishing The Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985. His funeral, held in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, was attended by more than 4,000 mourners. Both Maya Angelou (see no. 89) and Toni Morrison (see no. 93) came to pay their respects, and spoke of Baldwin’s place in history as one of America’s greatest writers.