James Baldwin did it all. As a novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer and civil rights activist, James Baldwin’s writings defined what it meant to be a Black and gay writer in the 20th century United States.
With dozens of pieces, four National Book Award nominations, and a history fighting for civil and gay rights, Baldwin is an obvious influence on many writers that came after.
How did James Baldwin come to be such a great writer? Well, the answer is not simple. However, here is a little about the life of James Baldwin and advice for writing in his own words.
Learn through reading
Baldwin himself discusses how it was never easy. He was born in 1924 and his home was near a river and garbage center in Harlem. He had nine siblings, all of which he raised due to his father’s inability to care for them.
Both of his parents were rural Southerners who had migrated to the North to escape the racist segregation laws of the South, only to discover that the North was not much different. Baldwin often points out how their strict and religious upbringing caused them to have a direct way of expressing their despair. In addition, Baldwin often felt isolated by his parents, which resulted in him spending time away from them in libraries. These libraries fostered the beginnings of Baldwin’s lustrous writing career:
“I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac.”
The Impact of Finding Who You Are
By his teenage years, Baldwin recognized that he was gay, however he did not directly come out as gay to those around him:
“I had to go through a time of isolation in order to come to terms with who and what I was, as distinguished from all the things I’d been told I was. Right around 1950 I remember feeling that I’d come through something, shed a dying skin and was naked again. I wasn’t, perhaps, but I certainly felt more at ease with myself. And then I was able to write. Throughout 1948 and 1949 I just tore up paper.”
In 1956, he wrote Giovanni’s Room, which is a book with a bisexual main at its core. Baldwin captures the decisive, guilt-ridden and freeing moments that come with this journey. In addition, major themes in this story are masculinity and its toxicity, bisexuality and identity.
Giovanni’s Room initially stirred controversy after its release due to its discussion about about the gay experience before the gay liberation movement started. Many of Baldwin’s later works also feature gay or bisexual men as the main characters as well.
Following in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Baldwin’s works turned to focus more on the discussion surrounding sexuality. Though his readers and the media were not particularly in favor, Baldwin became an influential figure in the gay rights and gay liberation movement.
The Path is Not Always Linear
The first draft of Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first novel, was rejected by two publishing houses in 1945. In this period of time after the novel was rejected, Baldwin went on to write book reviews and social commentary essays for The Nation, The New Leader and Commentary Magazine for a national audience.
Not only did Baldwin build his writing portfolio during this time, but Go Tell It on the Mountain was finally published in 1953. There was no looking back for Baldwin, as his career writing novels and collections took off from this point. Baldwin gives his own thoughts on writing, especially overcoming failures in the Paris Review:
“If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.”
There is an entire world outside of writing (but you should write about it anyway)
Though Baldwin left for Paris in 1948 completely disillusioned with the country around him, he returned to the United States in 1957 knowing the impact he could have on the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin was involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He gave lectures around the country, met with several high-profile political figures and debated philosophers and researchers on television talk shows. On The Dick Cavett Show in 1968, Baldwin discussed why he left to write in Paris in the first place:
“It is very hard to concentrate on a typewriter when you are afraid of the world around you.”
Nevertheless, Baldwin watched the horror of American racism from a distance and was discontent with doing nothing. Though Baldwin recognized how the cruel and racist world around him made it difficult to make any change, it was through articulating this cruelty and racism in his works that he was able to make a change.
James Baldwin died in 1987, but his legacy has continued far beyond that year. Before his death, Baldwin was working on a collection of essays surrounding his experiences with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom were assassinated in a five-year period. Baldwin did not finish the manuscript, but the 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, was based on the unfinished manuscript.