James Baldwin is the favorite author of the woman who used to swipe cards at my college cafeteria. At breakfast each morning, she and I would talk classic literature before I went to get an omelette. She couldn’t believe that I’d never read James Baldwin being an English major. What was this fancy school bothering to teach you college kids? Nothing important in her eyes.
She went on to talk about how his voice changed a generation, how his intersectionality was the beginning of real representation. Now a few years later, I can’t imagine not having read his work.
So this Black History Month, take some time to read up on James Baldwin, one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors, and don’t forget to check our other pieces on Influential Black Authors.
In 1924, James Baldwin was born out of wedlock in Harlem, New York. His mother never revealed the identity of his birth father, though he did have a relationship with his stepfather that his mother married when he was three. Although their relationship was rocky and challenging, James did use his stepfather’s last name, Baldwin, as a writer.
His mother and stepfather would go on to have eight children together. As the oldest child, Baldwin went to work at a young age to help support his family.
Even though he was working, teachers at school recognized Baldwin’s talents even as a student. He was an avid young reader, reading classic authors like Dickens and Dostoevsky by fifth grade. He spent lots of time at his local library, which became a place for him to escape his challenging home life.
Baldwin began writing for his junior high newspaper and later wrote for his high school’s magazine, which showcased his young writing talent. Some of his first poems, essays, articles, and interviews are found in these publications. By the end of high school, Baldwin knew he wanted to be a professional writer.
While in high school, Baldwin began contemplating his sexuality. In order to deal with these feelings, Baldwin turned to religion. He began to get very involved with his Pentecostal faith, even beginning to give sermons at the age of 14. In later life, he renounced religion entirely citing it as a place for self-hatred.
Early in his career, Baldwin struggled between his need to provide for himself and his desire to write. After watching his stepfather struggle to support his family, Baldwin did not want to follow that path. Early in his career he struggled with alcohol after getting fired from his job at a meatpacking plant.
Although his career may not have had the most promising start, Baldwin still became a prolific writer. He began writing book reviews and essays for a variety of publications through the 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1953, Baldwin’s most famous work Go Tell It On The Mountain was published. This semi-autobiographical novel that deals with issues of race, sexuality, and religion, all topics important to Baldwin. At the time of its publication, Go Tell It On The Mountain was widely praised and is usually considered his greatest novel today.
In the following years, Baldwin accepts a variety of fellowships and honors as a writer, including the Guggenheim Fellowship and National Institute of Arts and Letters Award. He also spends time writing at the MacDowell Colony, an artist commune in New Hampshire.
While at MacDowell, Baldwin worked on Giovanni’s Room, one of his most famous works. The novel focuses on an American living in Paris who struggles with sexual identity and the male relationships in his life. Baldwin himself lived in Paris from 1948-1957, where he drew a lot of inspiration for this novel.
Baldwin continued to publish prolific essays, novels, plays, interviews, and a large variety of written work until the early 1980s. His Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time are widely considered two of the greatest American essay collections.
Not only is James Baldwin one of the most influential and essential writers of the twentieth century, his impact on representation cannot be understated. Baldwin is the first popular intersectional writer, who discussed the overlapping challenges of being black and gay in America.
Many of Baldwin’s works, particularly Go Tell It On The Mountain, are taught in schools today. Although the teaching of his work is a wonderful step in diversifying many school curriculums, his books have also been banned in some schools for their content and themes.
His words have not only informed millions about his own complex experiences, but he opened the door for other writers to share their own experiences. A variety of American writers cite him as a major influence, from Maya Angelou to Toni Morrison. Truly, Baldwin is the definition of a trailblazer in the literary world.