James Baldwin

8 Feb

Some of you may have seen this gentleman on one of the Writing Center flyers around campus. Today’s post is for James Baldwin.

Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, the eldest of 9 children. By 14, James was “spending much of his time in the libraries and found his passion for writing.” He tried preaching and working on the railroad but neither of those vocations lasted. He moved to Greenwich Village and met Richard Wright (another writer I’ll be posting about later this month) who helped Baldwin to secure a grant to write.

Off to Paris in 1948! He did the freelance thing for a little while before heading off to Switzerland to finish his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain, which was published in 1953. The rest of the decade found Baldwin moving from Paris to New York to Istanbul and publishing Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956).

He returned to the US to take part in the civil rights movement declaring that “[o]nce you find yourself in another civilization, you’re forced to examine your own.” A result of his travels and experiences in the South resulted in The Fire Next Time (1963), which has been described as “an explosive work about black identity and the state of racial struggle.”

Baldwin continued to write fiction, non-fiction, and poetry during the rest of his life. To read more, check out the American Masters page (the source for the quotes above) as well as Perspectives in American Literature, which includes a listing of his primary works, awards and honors, and a bibliography.

Baldwin died in 1987 at the age of 63 of stomach cancer. Never one to shy away from tackling tough issues, Baldwin used his talent to write about race, sexuality, civil rights, and more. As he stated, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger” – the risk was worth it.

For further reading/listening, check out these links:

Watch a clip from the documentary The Price of the Ticket.

Baldwin’s quotes abound – check some of them out here.

Randall Kenan the editor of a Baldwin collection was interviewed by NPR in 2010. That link also leads to an excerpt penned by Baldwin titled “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” that I’m sure more than a few of you will enjoy (and connect to).

What’s your favorite Baldwin work? Did you make a connection with any novel, poem, or quote in particular? Share with us in the comments.

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