James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924 in New York City’s Harlem. Baldwin had a difficult upbringing, which included an evangelical preacher stepfather who struggled financially and who demanded rigorous religious behavior from his nine children. Baldwin’s personal challenges are reflected in his writings, especially in Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Baldwin was an excellent student who sought escape from his environment through literature, movies, and theater. He served as a junior minister for three years at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, but gradually lost his desire to preach as he began to question Christian tenets.
Shortly after he graduated from high school in 1942, Baldwin sought work to help support his brothers and sisters; mental instability had incapacitated his stepfather. Baldwin took a job in the defense industry in Belle Meade, N.J., and there, not for the first time, he was confronted with racism, discrimination, and the debilitating regulations of segregation. The experiences in New Jersey were closely followed by his stepfather’s death, after which Baldwin determined to make writing his sole profession.
Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village and began to write a novel, supporting himself by performing a variety of odd jobs. In 1944 he met author Richard Wright, who helped him to land the 1945 Eugene F. Saxton fellowship. Despite the financial freedom the fellowship provided, Baldwin was unable to complete his novel that year. He found the social tenor of the United States increasingly stifling even though such prestigious periodicals as the Nation, New Leader and Commentary began to accept his essays and short stories for publication.
In 1948 he moved to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship to pay his passage. Most critics feel that this journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an author.
“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean,” Baldwin told the New York Times, “I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.” Baldwin’s move led to a burst of creativity that included Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room and other works. He also wrote a series of essays probing the psychic history of the United States along with his inner self. Many critics view Baldwin’s essays as his most significant contribution to American literature. They include “Notes of a Native Son,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “The Fire Next Time,” “No Name in the Street” and “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.”
James Baldwin biographical details modified from: https://www.chipublib.org/james-baldwin-biography/
Poem source: “The Giver,” by James Baldwin / Poetry Foundation
To learn more about Baldwin, including more poems, click here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/james-baldwin
If you are in the U S of A (or abroad) and are observing Fourth of July festivities this weekend, be safe! My holiday weekend just began by rereading the Declaration of Independence. Here is the link, if you’d care to join me: Declaration of Independence. I do not take for granted the freedoms found in this country, compared to some, and yet in a celebratory mood I am not, considering the increasing challenges faced by the working class, the continued gun violence, and the loss of women’s rights. I will celebrate creativity and art, in all its varied forms. Thank you for visiting, reading and listening! Be well. 💗Michele
Photos: Feature photo by photographer, Ryan DeBerardinis / James Baldwin (google images)
© 2022 Michele Lee Sefton