James Baldwin (b. August 2, 1924 – d. December 1, 1987) was a best-selling author and activist that was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York. Baldwin became an important voice in the late 1950s and early 1960s for his thought-provoking discussions on race relations in America.
“I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart,” said Baldwin while reflecting on himself as a student. “I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.”
Baldwin grew up in poverty and was the oldest of nine children born to a young single mother. His mother married a Baptist minister and at 14, Baldwin followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and became a youth minister. He also developed a passion for reading at an early age and his writing talents became clear while he was a student.
After graduating high school, Baldwin worked various odd jobs and moved to Greenwich Village, a New York City neighborhood that was popular among artists and writers. He became friends with the established writer Richard Wright, who helped Baldwin secure a fellowship in 1945 that would allow him to support himself as a writer.
Baldwin left for Paris in 1948, where he hoped to find enough distance from American society to write about it. After writing for various magazines, Baldwin went to Switzerland to finish his first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, an autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem. He went on to publish some of his most famous works; Notes of a Native Son (1955), Giovanni’s Room (1956), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and Another Country (1962).
By the early 1960s, Baldwin returned to the United States to be an active participant in the civil rights movement. During his travels, Baldwin began writing The Fire Next Time (1963), which is a critical piece on black identity. Baldwin also experienced the loss of friends such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. to racial hatred.
Baldwin continued to write novels and essays up until his death in St. Paul de Vence, France on December 1, 1987. His legacy was remembered with the 2016 release of the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” by filmmaker Raoul Peck. The film was adapted from an uncompleted manuscript of Baldwin’s, “Remember This House.”