James Arthur Baldwin, born August 2, 1924 to a Mr. and Mrs. David and Bertis Baldwin, was raised in Harlem, though his parents had lived in the deep south. “If they had waited two more seconds I might have been born in the south”, Baldwin once remarked.
Life for African-American families in these times was far from pretty, whether they lived north or south. Though part of this is the fault of society, much of the harshness in Baldwin’s own childhood originated from the abusive nature of his father. Baldwin was forced to begin storefront preaching, as it’s called, at age 15. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “Life outwitted me and corroborated my father. Yet I knew nothing else. So in a sense I ended up with the devil that I knew.”
The experience (straight from Baldwin’s tongue) “turned him into a writer”. As he read books in his childhood, the suffering, adventure, glory, defeat, triumph, happiness, etc. (both in the books and in the life he led while at the pulpit) helped to inspire the habitual polemical oratory that slowly became his trademark. Baldwin had to be confident to succeed. He had to succeed to be confident. For one in his position, there is no other way. There was no other way. He could show the world. He would demand vengeance from it in his quest for freedom, love and literature. At the pulpit, Baldwin is inspired by the unconditional all encompassing love of God and for God. That reciprocal passion for God and that love from God is the same passion and love that Baldwin felt and held for those stories which he read, as well as those he wrote. Both religion and literature were means for the somewhat egg-headed Baldwin to gain the acceptance of his peers and later the acceptance of the world. It’s as simple as that.
But of course, the rigidity of organized religion would never gain the acceptance of one such non-conformist as Baldwin. It seems(ed) a fair statement when Nelson Algren coined him The Black-American Emerson, in consideration of Baldwin’s decision to “leave the pulpit in order to preach”. The only thing Baldwin could do to calm the fury of his father was to attend university after graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, in north Harlem. It was while working as a railroad hand to pay for his tuition that Baldwin wrote the sorrowful In My Father’s House, a polemical essay in the form of a novel.
Not long after this Baldwin quit the job and headed for Greenwich village, associating with Richard Wright, Bernard Hassel and Bobby Short. Both Wright and Baldwin were struggling. In My Father’s House was not published and Baldwin finally left America in disgust over the racist political climate which was an ever present force in American life.
While leading the bohemian life in Paris (though with almost no money), Baldwin met and subsequently fell in love with the modernist painter Lucien Happsberger. Jimmy was a social creature through and through. He loved Paris. He loved drinking and he loved parties. The need to write and the need to work forced Jimmy to retreat from the scandalous life he loved in order to make a living.
Baldwin had already achieved minor recognition in America and had also written countless essays. His first novel, Go Tell it On the Mountain is essentially autobiographical, like his earlier essay work. Baldwin’s next feat, Giovanni’s Room is a departure and a deviation to never be forgotten. Baldwin tackles male homosexuality from the white perspective, no easy task for an African-American author. David, a young American expatriate drives himself from a troubled family and a country in which he feels alone. In Paris, the boy hides himself, his sexuality and the personal problems back in America. In finding the bartender Giovanni, our young David finds someone he truly cares for, not simply another bohemian inspired illicit liaison. Giovanni is someone he can belong with. Someone he can love. Someone real. Something real. Something that he doesn’t want to run away from. David, once again, fears commitment, driving Giovanni to accuse transparent fops of stealing David away from him. I will not spoil the heart pounding climax. Nevertheless, David sees the complexities of his own heart and his inability to accurately cope with the daily stress of living, becoming in a sense heroic, as he deals with his at least partially self-inflicted loss. A story of passion, violence, deceit, mayhem, confession, reckoning, prejudice, isolation and, playing around all the others, sexuality. Then, out of the forbidden depths of this novel came the exposure of a truth enlarging the controversy surrounding Jimmy’s writing. That he himself was a homosexual. “Giovanni’s Room was my launching pad. The rocket was the Civil Rights movement.”- James Baldwin
Baldwin’s pen had no stops in the late fifties as he wrote everything from plays (The Amen Corner) to essays (Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son, No Name in The Street) to poems. After traveling most of Europe, Baldwin convinced Happsberger to sail with him on a Mecca towards the far east.
A sense of belonging in one’s own community and the ability to identify with the history of one’s own people were both of fundamental requisition to Jimmy. In Turkey, where he finally settled in 1961, Baldwin felt that the deep roots of this ancient land somehow reconnected him with his African blood, at least spiritually. While in Turkey, Jimmy met acclaimed Turkish authors not to mention fellow American expatriates. And more importantly, he finished a great deal of work. Turkey not only gave Baldwin a sense of historical connection, of historical oneness; the warm boisterous streets of downtown Istanbul put Jimmy in mind of Harlem and those poor streets he knew as a child. A second thought need not be required. Still, no dream lasts forever and this one was brisling towards an abrupt end.
Jimmy felt that, as an African-American, there was no other choice for him but to return to America and take a stand; work as an active physical participant in the civil rights movement. While Jimmy toured the south in fear of his life along with fellow protestors, the controversy of his most recent book was blatantly felt. Once again, the subject was that of relationships. This novel focused on the trials and tribulations between in relationships between whites and blacks. The tragedy of their loves and the glory of their loves. In the book whites and blacks, children, friends, lovers on both sides of the racial barrier, offer comfort to one another as a white a family and their neighbor black family, see their lives destroyed, changed and recreated right before their eyes. It remains a powerful novel to this day with its psychological message of humanity overriding conformity in the name of love, an argument which holds the resonance of the novels political arguments. “If blacks and whites come together and love one another and are in love with one another and if all peoples of all shades do this then we will treat each other differently and we will treat our children differently. And hatred, quite simply, may cease to exist”- James Baldwin
As the sixties progressed, Baldwin became further engrossed in the struggles of American blacks. Baldwin willingly shared his success with a large extended family, but he was now destitute, taking residence in the guest house of a cottage owned by his novelist friend, William Styron. Baldwin, an avowed pacifist, was unsure as how to address the concerns of younger angrier blacks who preferred the tactics of Malcom X to Martin Luther King. In 1964, Baldwin attempts to give a cross-section of the conflict as it existed then with counter pointing and several perspectives given. In the play Blues for Mister Charlie Baldwin’s anger chimes in for really the first time. And once again, there was controversy abound. African-Americans seizing control on a practical level seemed frightening. We see the anger of black youth, the longing for an end t
o fighting from the elderly and the lack of understanding between the two sides, as well as white cruelty. And each individual group is fighting for control of the town. At one point, the town is so divided, the local Reverend to the blacks lays his bible down on the podium and says “Well, I’ve got the gun and I’ve got the bible. One of these is gonna work.”
Returning to polemicism, Jimmy wrote The Fire Next Time as a plea to the world. A demand for instantaneous love and forgiveness, if not everlasting and instantaneous happiness. Like so much of what Jimmy writes, the price of love is a key issue. How much are you willing to sacrifice to preserve love? To preserve your love? It seems Jimmy’s characters are often fighting for their right to love or fighting to preserve their own love.
We can see the strong ties to the church in Jimmy’s belief that if we truly want to live and to say yes to life, we must pay the price of love. Jimmy never lost sight of his background in the church or in his identity as an American. Jimmy is not the only American author to broaden his own perspective by choosing to live in another country. That is why authors leave this country while continuing to participate in its political development. Jimmys disillusionment with the political process in American began with the shift from non-violence to militancy in the African American political arena. But it didn’t seem to matter much to Jimmy because with the assassinations of the 60s and the stagnating political climate of the 70s, Jimmy began to feel that he could bring about no change in staying. That change was not as inevitable as he thought it was when he wrote Blues for Mister Charlie or Go Tell it On the Mountain. A great wealth of the polemical pieces that Jimmy wrote in the 70s and late 60s before leaving America were published in The Price of the Ticket. Jimmy left again for Paris in 1977, hoping to finish If Beale Street Could Talk. While he re-united with long lost friends and acquaintances, the now published If Beale Street Could Talk was becoming the first in a series of heavily criticized Baldwin novels and essays. In later years, the cynicism of Baldwin’s final pieces gained momentum but at this time, it was seen as overly ponderous and political. In truth, Baldwin was searching for new forms of controversy and when we live in an era where most people seem to think all the important battles have been won, it’s easy to dismiss a conscientious and rational vote of doubt as a sermonizing spokesperson for the downtrodden masses. Baldwin was so much more. He was also a prophet. He was also a hero. However, all things end and every paradise has a serpent. Jimmy developed a heart malfunction in 1979. The first surgery was in 1981. Jimmy was frustrated and annoyed with his own weakness, yet he could not afford to stop working. The world was changing and new stories needed to be told. Baldwin finished a several hundred page essay on the American prison system in 1984, shortly before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The closer Jimmy came to death, the zestier his attempts to undermine its effects on his body. Jimmy began teaching in America, where he loved drawing the students in with his natural charisma. “Everybody remembered Jimmy”, a student once remarked “Even if you weren’t a school kid, if you got out much, you knew Jimmy”.
By the time he published Evidence of Things Not Seen in 1985, Baldwin had undergone three colostomy operations and 2 arterial operations. The third, in 1986 weakened him and left him bed-ridden. Forced to stop teaching but not to stop writing, Baldwin fled to Paris again where he planned on living out his final days in Happsberger’s Penthouse apartment. Churning out one final play in the fall of 1986, Baldwin died, with Lucien and his two beloved brothers by his side, on December 1, 1987.
Baldwin was one of the first articulators of the modern Black movement. Baldwin said that when he’d gone it was a dream of his to see something of himself live beyond the pain that he lived in. “And if I have done that, then I’ve accomplished something in life”-James Baldwin