Biography of James Baldwin

James Baldwin is a well-known public figure and American writer, whose works played a significant role in the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin's fiery essays and fiction addressed issues of race, poverty, power and justice.

The grandson of a slave, James Baldwin was born, like the protagonists of "Sonny's Blues," into poverty in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. One of nine children, Baldwin discovered his passion for reading and writing at a young age and could often be found in the library. As a teenager, Baldwin emulated his stepfather, a strict preacher, by preaching to a small congregation and becoming increasingly involved with religion. Many critics have noted that the "cadences and tones" of the Bible influenced Baldwin's later writings ("James Baldwin").

By 1944 Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he met and developed a friendship with Richard Wright, a preeminent African American writer. With Wright's help, Baldwin won a literary grant, which he used to move to Paris and support his writing. It was in Europe that Baldwin wrote and published his first and perhaps most critically acclaimed work: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a novel about religion and the African American experience. To write the book, he lived alone in the mountains of Switzerland, "armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter" (The Last Interview, 4). He credits Smith, a popular African American blues singer of the 20s and 30s, with helping to awaken himself to his own identity.

Later during this period Baldwin also wrote Giovanni's Room (1956), in which he turned to his own struggles with homosexuality for inspiration. The time he spent in France and other European countries has been described as "crucial to his development as a writer" ("Sonny's Blues," 246). There he was able to escape the racial and personal pressures that he felt constrained him in the United States. His years in Europe, he says, were crucial in giving him perspective. When he came back, "I began to see this country for the first time. If I hadn't gone away, I would never have been able to see it; and if I was unable to see it, I would never have been able to forgive it" (Last Interview, 21).

In the early 1960s Baldwin returned to the United States, feeling a deep sense of responsibility to aid the Civil Rights Movement out of a sense of responsibility as an American as well as a black man. "And I suggest this: that in order to learn your name, you are going to have to learn mine. In a way, the American [black] is the key figure in this country; and if you don't face him, you will never face anything" (Last Interview, 22). His essay collections on race and oppression in America--Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963)--energized a generation of African Americans, writers, and critics.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s James Baldwin continued writing and producing novels, but many critics felt that "his powers were declining" ("Sonny's Blues," 246). Despite critical opinion, many of his works during this period, like the love story If Beale Street Could Talk, became bestsellers. On December 1, 1987 James Baldwin died of stomach cancer at 63 years of age. He died as one of the "most important and vocal advocates for inequality" ("James Baldwin") and one of the most important authors in the modern American cannon.

Despite being an essential African American voice, Baldwin preferred to think of himself as an American author, not as an African American author. As an artist, he wished to "speak for the entire human race" ("Sonny's Blues," 246). Ultimately, his stories are universal tales of suffering, struggle, redemption and love.


Study Guides on Works by James Baldwin

It is perhaps not straying too terribly far from the certainty known as absolute truth that without the release of the so-called “Kinsey Report” in 1948 and the subsequent release of two highly regarded semi-autobiographical novels dealing openly...

One of James Baldwin’s earliest works, “Sonny’s Blues” is a perennial favorite of college anthologies and perhaps his most widely read short story. Initially published in 1957, it was included in the 1965 collection entitled Going to Meet the Man....