Monday, August 02, 2010

It Happened in History: James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York's Harlem, the illegitimate son of a domestic worker. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard, cruel man who was also a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname of his stepfather, who died in a mental hospital in 1943.

Throughout his childhood, Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was 12, his first story appeared in a church newspaper.

At the age of 14, Baldwin discovered relief from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted and served in the church as a minister for the next three years. It was his experience in delivering sermons that inspired his famous 1953 work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a young minister named John Grimes. At the age of 17, Baldwin left home. After being graduated from high school, he worked in several low-level jobs while beginning his literary apprenticeship.

In middle school, Baldwin had taken French classes from poet Countee Cullen, who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948, where he wrote the famous essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955). He lived there for a decade before traveling to London and Istanbul in order to escape the racism he experienced in the United States. He finally returned to America in 1957 to get involved in the southern school desegregation struggle, speaking passionately in support of civil rights and organizing protests. He warned that, until white America changed its attitudes toward blacks, violence would rain across the land. His activities made him a target of FBI investigations, ultimately leading the organization to compile a 1,750-page dossier on the author.

In his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin exposed a man's struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American who falls in love with Giovanni, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella, his would-be wife.

"But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts," Baldwin wrote, "their lovers and friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life."

Nobody Knows My Name (1962), a collections of essays, explored black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner's views on segregation, and Richard Wright's work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer, although the two never became close.

Although music often played a pivotal role in Baldwin's life, the author had not moved it to the forefront of his writings until Just above My Head (1979), his sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends who began preaching and singing in Harlem churches. In the book, Hall Montana tells the story of the decline of the gospel-singing career of his brother Arthur.

His next book, Evidence of Things Seen (1983), is an account of the unsolved murders of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. Although the ambitious work was written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, critics panned it when it appeared as a book, calling it superficial--a charge that Baldwin was forced to deal with throughout his literary life.

In 1983, Baldwin accepted a position as a college professor in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shortly thereafter, he moved to St. Paul de Venice on the French Riviera, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.


Copyright 2010 AmSAW

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