Toni Morrison’s commendation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book referenced James Baldwin, one of the most influential African American writers, scholars, and activists. Coates’s work was directly influenced by Baldwin’s collection of essays, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin’s openness about his sexuality and what it meant to be black in America, coupled with his passion and intellect, have made his works cornerstones of the American canon.
Baldwin was born in 1924 to a young single mother in Harlem; his grandfather had been a slave. When he was a child he was mocked and abused by police officers, which influenced his understanding of his status in the country. In a 1966 essay, he wrote, “This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled.”
His upbringing was characterized by poverty and tension between himself and his religious stepfather. He pursued books and learning as a way to escape his circumstances and developed a passion for writing by his teens. He began writing poems, short stories, and plays.
He became a youth minister, but decided to move on by eighteen. He took a job at the New Jersey railroad and then moved to Greenwich Village. He befriended Richard Wright and the older author helped him secure a grant to support his writing; Baldwin subsequently published works in The Nation and Partisan Review.
When he was twenty-four years old, he moved to Paris to work on his writing about America; it was important for him to secure this distance. He then went to Switzerland where he finished his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, in 1953. The novel was mostly autobiographical and eventually became a classic.
Baldwin worked in Paris, New York, and Istanbul over the next ten years. He wrote two books of essays, Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows my Name (1961), and two novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). Both were immediate bestsellers but somewhat controversial due to their frank treatment of issues like racism and homosexuality. Baldwin won a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955.
His collection of essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), was a bold and incisive look at race in America. He was often criticized during the Civil Rights Movement for his pacifism but was a prominent voice nonetheless. In the years after the assassinations of major Civil Rights leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., he moved to France again and continued to write works of fiction and nonfiction.
Baldwin died of stomach cancer in 1987 at the age of 63.