James Arthur Baldwin was an American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic. James Baldwin offered a vital literary voice during the era of civil rights activism in the 1950s and '60s.
The eldest of nine children, his stepfather was a minister. At age 14, Baldwin became a preacher at the small Fireside Pentecostal Church in Harlem. In the early 1940s, he transferred his faith from religion to literature. Critics, however, note the impassioned cadences of Black churches are still evident in his writing.
His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), is a partially autobiographical account of his youth. His essay collections Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were influential in informing a predominantly white audience.
From 1948, Baldwin made his home primarily in South France but often returned to the USA to lecture or teach. In 1957, he began spending half a year in New York City.
His novels include Giovanni's Room (1956), about a white American expatriate who needs to come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country, about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in savage criticism from the Black community.
Eldridge Cleaver, a member of the Black Panthers, stated that Baldwin's writing displayed an "agonizing, total hatred of blacks."
Baldwin's play, Blues for Mister Charlie, was produced in 1964. Going to Meet the Man and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.
James Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.
In 2016, the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck, based on James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript Remember This House, was released.
The documentary examines the lives and legacies of three African American leaders who were all assassinated in the 1960s: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. Baldwin's words are brought to life through archival footage, photographs, and interviews with scholars, activists, and other experts.