Playwright, novelist, essayist, activist, and legend are some of the terms one can use to describe James Baldwin. Born in 1924 in Harlem, New York, Baldwin was an American who took to writing to express the ill-treatment of African Americans and those with different sexual orientations. A lot of his work features protagonists who struggle with social acceptance in America’s mid-twentieth century society where only some races and classes were thought worthy of dignity. These characters are also set in a backdrop of socio-political movements, such as the gay liberation movement, which lends scenes authenticity.
Some of Baldwin’s best works include The Fire Next Time, which occupied most of the New Yorker magazine’s November 1962 issue; the 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie, which was enacted on Broadway in 1964; and his last unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which included his recollections of notable civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The unfinished manuscript was later adapted into a documentary titled I Am Not Your Negro in 2016, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
While Baldwin is commonly regarded as an ‘American’ writer, his writing career took off five years after he left America for Paris. Fans often wonder why he decided to leave the country permanently.
Why Did He Leave the States?
An interview published in the 1984 spring edition of the Paris Review provides insight into James Baldwin’s life – why he left the States, when he realized he would become a writer, and how the journey was. When asked why he left the states, Baldwin started off with, “I was broke.” He later spoke about the difficult conditions in New York and how African Americans’ options were very limited.
As a poor man with limited means, the streets were scary, and it boiled down to kill or be killed. He even said prison time was a very real possibility. With circumstances as they were, his time was running out, and the unfortunate fate that awaited most destitute African Americans would have been his if he didn’t act fast. Moreover, Baldwin’s best friend had taken his own life two years earlier, which played a role in the writer’s decision to quit the States.
Interestingly, when asked why France, of all places, Baldwin said there was no special reason behind choosing the country. He only wanted to get out of America because he knew what was in store for him – if he stayed, he would end up like his best friend and jump off the bridge.
As to where he would go, France was just as uncertain as any other country. With no knowledge of French, Baldwin moved to France in 1948 with only $40 to his name. What’s more, he had no friends, no connections, and no job. While he accepted he was lonely, he firmly stated his solitude was his doing – he didn’t want to know anyone or belong to any community.
Although James Baldwin is known for his literary work, he pursued a different path in his teen years. At the young age of 14, he was a junior minister of the church, preaching to large crowds. However, Baldwin regarded himself as non-religious many times later in life; he even denounced his faith in Christianity. Continue watching to know what brought about the change.
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He Still Loves America
After hearing an account of why James Baldwin left America, and the circumstances that he had to go through, one can’t help but wonder he had any happy feelings about his homeland. All the more so because he moved to France and never looked back. He once told the New York Times that America had not changed much.
During the Paris Review interview, when he was asked to comment on whether he had changed, Baldwin accepted he had – in a sense, he no longer had the same expectations from his country. During the same interview, Baldwin accepted that he had always loved America and still did. He even went on to say that it is impossible not to love your own country; one may move and settle elsewhere, but it isn’t possible to denounce that love for your country to yourself.
Renaissance Painter Beauford Delaney Was His Mentor
James Baldwin considered Beauford Delaney as his guide and mentor. At the age of 15, Baldwin crossed paths with the African American painter Beauford Delaney, whom he would later refer to as his spiritual father and ‘the first example of a black man as an artist.’
In the interview with the Paris Review, Baldwin recalled a specific incident that made a lasting impact. Baldwin and Delaney were at a street corner when Delaney asked Baldwin to look at the water, to which Baldwin looked but only saw the water. When Delaney asked him to look again, Baldwin noticed the city’s reflection in the thin layer of oil on the water. Baldwin described this incident as a great revelation when Delaney taught him ‘how to see.’
He Was Pivotal in the Publishing of Maya Angelou’s First Novel
The American poet and activist Maya Angelou and James Baldwin were food friends. Angelou lovingly referred to Baldwin as ‘brother friend’ or ‘Jimmy.’ The two spent quite a lot of time together, and on one such evening, Baldwin took Angelou to a party at Jules and Judy Feiffer’s place. Jules Feiffer was a cartoonist and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
At one point in the evening, guests were sharing personal stories, and a story Angelou shared caught Judy’s interest. Judy promptly suggested the then Random House editor, Robert Loomis, to have Angelou write a book. However, when Loomis approached Angelou, she turned down the offer. It was only when Loomis approached a second time with a challenge that Angelou decided to take it up.
He Was a Film Critic
James Baldwin was not only an excellent writer but a great critic as well. Some even go as far as to say Baldwin was the greatest film critic ever! Irrespective of whether you agree with that or not, you can’t deny that his book-length essay The Devil Finds Work is a masterpiece. The essay – a work of art in itself – is a commentary on American and European films, the entailing politics and themes. Much like Baldwin’s other literary work, his words in the essay are as elegant as they are blunt. For instance, his mention of The Exorcist is simply extraordinary.
The 1945 Saxton Fellowship was Crucial in Keeping Him Encouraged and Alive
James Baldwin received four writing grants from 1945 to 1956, but he considers the 1945 Saxton Fellowship the most important in his career. Baldwin was only 21 years old, and the grant launched him in the publishing world. So it’s not very surprising that it played a big role in boosting Baldwin’s morale. Interestingly, the novel he finished with the help of the grant, Go Tell It On the Mountain, wasn’t well received. So the grant didn’t directly launch him into the world of fame and book deals, but it gave him a stepping stone. After the novel, he reviewed books, which was not only an educational experience but entertaining. Baldwin enjoyed the experience, and overall, it shaped his writing.
He Was a Preacher from the Age of 14 to 17
James never knew who his biological father was, and he shared a complicated relationship with his stepfather, David Baldwin, a Baptist Minister. David had a son from his previous marriage, and together with James’ mother, Emma Berdis Jones, he had eight children. James claims David treated him harshly and that he suffered from child abuse.
While James and David had a strained relationship, religion served as a common ground between them. James followed in his stepfather’s footsteps and sought respite from the difficult circumstances at home in religion. At 14, he became a junior minister, and soon, he was preaching to large crowds. In the interview with the Paris Review, James said he had never scripted a speech. Instead, he would study the texts, improvise, and play it by ear.
At the age of 17, James Baldwin began to view Christianity in a different light. He felt the religion was racist and reinforced slavery; so, he decided to step away from continuing as a minister. His essay ‘Letter from a Religion in My Mind‘ sheds light on his perspective. In the essay, James says his young age made him popular, and he even confesses that he enjoyed the attention. Most of all, he believes his time as a preacher allowed him to break free of his stepfather’s hold. As a preacher, he had more privacy, and he had found a way to escape from punishment. Even so, he eventually realized that while he had tied his stepfather’s hands, he had also become just as tied to the situation.
Later in life, Baldwin visited Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, who asked him about his religious beliefs. Baldwin said he hadn’t followed any religion since he left the church. However, he did add that his experience as a junior minister molded his writing. Later in life, Baldwin also praised religion’s role in inspiring African Americans to join the fight against slavery. However, he also said religion’s role in life is to set us free and make us more loving, and if that is not the case, then it serves no purpose at all.
James Baldwin was a prominent figure of the mid-twentieth century and played a pivotal role as one of the artists at the forefront of the fight against oppression in the name of the race, caste, and sexual orientation. In his 35-year long career, Baldwin delivered many exceptional literary works, which have won him much critical acclaim and recognition. He has been conferred with many titles and honors around the world, even after his passing. If you haven’t read anything by this legendary writer yet, we suggest you try one of his essays to begin with. If you only read one piece by James Baldwin, let it be the essays of The Fire Next Time.
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