In numerous essays, novels, plays, and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood. Most of James Baldwin's work deals with racial and sexual issues in the mid-20th century in the United States. His novels are notable for the personal way in which they explore questions of identity as well as the way in which they mine complex social and psychological pressures related to being black and homosexual well before the social, cultural or political equality of these groups was improved.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, the son of a domestic worker. Illegitimate, he never knew his own father and was brought up in great poverty. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard and cruel man, who also was a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname from his stepfather, who died eventually in a mental hospital in 1943. In his childhood Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was about twelve his first story appeared in a church newspaper.
From 14 to 16 James Baldwin was active as a preacher in a small revivalist church, a period he would write about in his semiautobiographical first and finest novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
When he was 17 years old, Baldwin turned away from his religion and moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood, famous for its artists and writers. Here, he studied at The New School, finding an intellectual community within the university. Supporting himself with odd jobs, he began to write short stories, essays, and book reviews, many of which were later collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955).
Disgusted with America's racial injustice, Baldwin left in 1948 for Paris, where he lived in poverty for eight years. it was here that he completed his second novel Giovanni's Room (1956), which dealt explicitly with homosexuality. After 1969 he divided his time between the south of France, New York, and New England. Baldwin's next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters. These novels struggle to contain the turbulence of the 1960s: they are saturated with a sense of violent unrest and outrage.
Being abroad gave Baldwin a perspective on his life and a solitary freedom to pursue his craft. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he notes, “you’re forced to examine your own.” In a sense, Baldwin’s travels brought him even closer to the social concerns of contemporary America. In the early 1960s, overwhelmed with a responsibility to the times, Baldwin returned to take part in the civil rights movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). After a subsequent trip to the South in 1962, Baldwin aligned himself more closely with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963 he conducted a lecture tour of the South for CORE, traveling to locations like Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the tour, he lectured to students, white liberals, and anyone else listening about his racial ideology, an ideological position between the "muscular approach" of Malcolm X and the nonviolent program of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, along with prominent figures like Lorraine Hansberry and Harry Belafonte and other civil rights figures, Baldwin met with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to discuss the moral implications of the civil rights movement. Although most of the attendees of this meeting left feeling "devastated," the meeting was an important one in voicing the concerns of the civil rights movement and it provided exposure of the civil rights issue not just as a political issue but also as a moral issue. Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, with Harry Belafonte, as well as with long time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. Though at times criticized for his pacifist stance, Baldwin remained throughout the 1960s an important figure in the civil rights struggle.
After the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Baldwin returned to France where he worked on a book about the disillusionment of the times, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974). Many responded to the harsh tone of If Beale Street Could Talk with accusations of bitterness. But, even if Baldwin had encapsulated much of the anger of the times in his book, he always remained a constant advocate for universal love and brotherhood. He would live as an expatriate in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his life and after it, Baldwin would be seen not only as an influential African American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside of the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin's life and his writing.
During the last ten years of his life, Baldwin produced a number of important works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and turned to teaching as a new way of connecting with the young. By his death in 1987, James Baldwin had become one of the most important and vocal advocates for equality. From Go Tell It on the Mountain to The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985), James Baldwin created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon. He died of stomach cancer at his home in St. Paul de Vence, France.