James Baldwin is a masterful literary legend that wrote groundbreaking novels with LGBTQ+ and African American characters.
James Baldwin, the oldest of nine children, grew up in Harlem, New York in 1924. While Baldwin lived in Harlem with his mother, stepfather, and younger siblings, he met a Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who graduated from Harvard and relocated to teach literature at Harlem. Baldwin took on the mantle of Cullen’s protégé, influenced by his work of literature to attend his alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx.
At the prestigious all-boys public institution, Baldwin had weight on his shoulders as the school produced many literary and artistic figures—painters Barnett Newman and Romare Beardan, Avery Fisher, and the literary critic Lionel Trilling—that have been unsurpassed around the same time Baldwin’s deep interest in literature grew. He devoted much of his energy into the school literary magazine, The Magpie, where he collaborated with other accomplished poets and photographers that shared the same upbringing as him.
He drifted away from his senior editors at The Magpie and relocated to Greenwich Village, where he followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a preacher. To him, he views the study of the Bible as allegorical and a piece of literature; although he didn’t realize it at the time, this would influence his cadence in tone in his own work. He knew what his departure from religion would mean to his stepfather and his family, so at 18 years-old, he moved away from home to become a freelance writer and working primarily on book reviews.
Baldwin retouched with his former colleagues and editors he met at 16-years-old, including a 39-year-old painter Beauford Delaney, who, much like Baldwin, was a closeted gay artist that also struggled with his sexual identity. Although he remained in touch with the painter, in 1948 when Baldwin was 24, he left the United States for Paris to avoid the racism that continued to impact his life.
Baldwin then traveled where he moved from Paris to New York to Istanbul, writing to books of essays, Notes of a Native Sone (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961), during his travels. He wrote two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962), that explored topics about racial tensions and themes about homosexuality and interracial relationships. “Once you find yourself in another civilization,” he says, “you’re forced to examine your own.”
His work was critically acclaimed and connected him with a mountain of politicians, activists, writers, and artists. Of that list of public figures, he befriended American actor Marlon Brando quickly, which it was speculated that Brando invited Baldwin to speak for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a fundraiser on March 16, 1968. Much like Dr. King, Baldwin struggled with America’s commitment to the belief that white people mattered more and echoed many of Dr. King’s account. Baldwin remained a constant and essential voice in the civil rights movement.
During the last ten years of his life, he produced a number of important works of fiction brandished with love, lost, and brotherhood. By 1987, he passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 63. The novelist and professor Toni Morrison said at Baldwin’s funeral, “you made American English honest—genuinely international.” She continues, “you exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogic, representative, humane.” Baldwin’s literature is a force that continues to influence between a balance of young writers and people that struggle with their sexual identity.