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Baldwin, James

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James Baldwin was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, scriptwriter, and filmmaker. Born in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924, he understood poverty, injustice, and the parasitic nature of city streets. Some of his teenage experiences with bigoted police and sexual predators are recounted in the well-known volume, The Fire Next Time (1963). Also in that volume, in the section titled “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” Baldwin articulates his position on race: “You must accept them [whites] … accept them and accept them with love.” He considered racism a matter of morality and human dignity, and it was blacks’ responsibility to save whites from their own ignorance, fear, and loss of identity. His ideas about racism were not the most popular, but they clearly distinguished him as an eloquent visionary.

The oldest of nine children, Baldwin was the son of a domestic worker mother and a hostile and hateful stepfather, who thought his son was ugly and disavowed his intelligence. Baldwin was raised in a Pentecostal church, dominated by the theology of “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” He followed his preacher-father to the pulpit, and by the age of fourteen he was preaching the fundamentalist doctrine of his parents. For three years, he bellowed out Old Testament scriptures, while also realizing that the church provided no sanctuary from social, economic, and political injustices.

Baldwin found his refuge in reading and writing when he attended DeWitt Clinton High School. Realizing he was black and smart, and that his mind belonged solely to him, he declared he would take advantage of his intelligence. He wrote for the school paper and published several short stories that often reflected his religious background. This beginning led to an international reputation as one of the world’s most gifted writers.

When Baldwin finished high school in 1942, he did freelance writing and worked for the railroad in New Jersey. After a succession of jobs, he moved to Greenwich Village. It was there that he met the writer Richard Wright, who helped him secure a fellowship, after which Baldwin expatriated himself to Paris in 1948. Some of his essays indicate that he left America to escape racial discrimination only to discover that his adopted country, France, was no panacea for social justice and equality.

Baldwin’s treatment of racism, though engaging and thoughtful, is comparatively restrained in much of his work. While the scope of his most critically acclaimed novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), covers religion and personal identity, the second part of the three-part story, “The Prayers of the Saints,” reveals the racial hostility and violence of the Jim Crow South, as well as the social and economic inequality of the urban North. Some of his other work, notably the 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie , and the short story collection, Going to Meet the Man (1965), explore racial conflict, with the title story, “Going to Meet the Man,” from the point of view of the racist.

Baldwin’s essays are more fervent in the exploration of race. Notes of a Native Son (1955), offers a view of expatriation that contradicts the notion of Paris as the promised land, while Nobody Knows My Name (1961) deals, in part, with race relations in the United States. Some of his fiction, including Another Country (1962), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979), present characters who suffer deliberate racism as they negotiate other problems in their lives. With graceful eloquence, James Baldwin stirred the moral consciousness of a nation bogged down in matters of race.

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