James Arthur Baldwin was an American literary icon. Born in Harlem New York 1924, Baldwin was a renowned novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and social critic. He was a gay man. His work has influenced many, including famed writer/poet Maya Angelo and producer/filmmaker Spike Lee.
Raised by his mother, Emma Berdis Jones and abusive stepfather, preacher David Baldwin, he was the oldest of several siblings. Though the family was poor, he attended the prestigious and mostly Jewish DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and then The New School, a university primarily located in the Greenwich Village. At age 14 he became a preacher in the Pentecostal church as a result of the hardships of his life and in the footsteps of his stepfather. He soon attracted more worshipers than his stepfather. But at age 17, he left the church as he disagreed with the views of Christianity.
Baldwin was mentored by famous Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney. Delaney was also an African American and also gay. This was Baldwin’s first realization that a black person can be an artist. “The first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist” said Baldwin. During his youth he became aware of his own homosexuality and so to escape the intolerance blacks and homosexuals faced in America, he left and went to Paris. There, he wanted to come to terms with his sexuality and he wanted to be viewed as more than just a Negro writer.
His most acclaimed novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi- autobiographical coming of age story published in 1953. Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, was a controversial work of fiction due to its homoerotic content and exclusively white character base. Other works such as Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone experimented with black and white character, heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual characters. Baldwin contributed many other literary works not only in the form of novels but also book length essays and short stories.
Moved by the Civil Rights Movement, he returned to America in 1957 to lend his talents to the cause. He travelled to the south where he met and befriended Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote many essays about the movement. He associated himself with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He became a spokesperson for the movement in 1963 and made the cover of TIME magazine in May of that year. He made an important appearance at the March on Washington alongside friends Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier. Notably he rejected the label of civil rights activist instead joining his personal friend Malcolm X in the belief that if one is a citizen; one should not have to fight for one’s civil rights.
As a gay man Baldwin was subject to a callous homophobic attack by writer/ political activist Eldridge Cleaver in the narrative Soul on Ice. At the Chapter of Black and White Men Together (BWMT-NY) forum held on June 5th in a gay synagogue known as Simchat Torah on the West side of Greenwich Village, he gave a speech saying that “his life-long sexual orientation had never been a secret, but he had not always felt it was necessary, “or anybody’s business,” to openly affirm it. “Before I was seven years old,” he said, “there were so many labels on my back beginning with ‘nigger.’ By the time I was 14, I went through a kind of nervous breakdown, which happened when I, was a preacher, and by the time I was 17, 1 had survived all the labels, including the label of ‘faggot.’ It wasn’t and it isn’t, easy.”
He went on to depict racism in the gay community as merely an extension of racism in the wider White Western societies. He said “Gays, like Blacks, he believes, are being used as scapegoats for society’s own fears. They are becoming victims of the anger Whites feel when they see that capitalism must, of necessity, give way to a new economic order of socialism. “Yet even White socialism seems unable to eliminate its racism,” he added.
He concluded his speech with a powerful affirmation. It goes “One has to reject, in toto, the implication that one is abnormal. That is a sociological and societal delusion that has no truth at all. I’m no more abnormal than general.
James Baldwin died on December 1st 1987 from stomach cancer at Saint- Paul-de-Vence in France. He was laid to rest at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale New York.