Happy Birthday, James Baldwin! An Inside Look at the Life of One of America’s Greatest Word Artists – NBCNEWS

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American writer James Baldwin

UPDATED: 7:00 AM ET, August 2, 2022

Novelist, essayist and playwright James Baldwinwho would have turned 98 today stands out as one of America’s most esteemed wordsmiths, known for his bold musings on race, sexuality, and other topics considered too controversial for the time of his creative peak.

As a gay man, some of Baldwin’s work has focused not only on the complexities of the role of blacks in America, but also on that of gay men who, as he rose to the literary ranks, faced horrific criticism and prejudice.

Baldwin and his mother, Emma, moved to Harlem, leaving behind his father who struggled with substance abuse. She would marry preacher David Baldwin and the family lived in harsh conditions.

Baldwin’s stepfather was said to have insulted both him and his siblings, and when he died in 1943 while James was a teenager, Harlem revolted on the day of his funeral—an event that shaped much of Baldwin’s writing style.

An avid reader, Baldwin worked as an editor for his high school magazine and continued his studies at New School University. Forever intellectually curious, Baldwin would challenge societal norms and even his own commitment to the Christian church.

Baldwin would denounce much of what he learned during his visit to his stepfather in the pulpit, although he never declared himself an atheist. Much of Baldwin’s criticism of the Church stemmed from its use by slave owners to oppress blacks. However, he would say that religion also had the power to liberate the oppressed as well.

Watch Baldwin being interviewed here:

Baldwin left New York in 1948, became an expatriate and found his voice in Paris, France. Baldwin found acceptance abroad as he struggled to accept his sexuality. He flourished in Paris and was published in several literary anthologies, together with fellow writers Richard Wright as an essayist during his earlier stays in Europe.

Baldwin’s most celebrated novel was his 1953 debut, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” a semi-autobiographical novel set in 1930s Harlem. The book examines the role of the church in the lives of black Americans and reexamines the duality of the lens through which Baldwin viewed Christianity. The novel has remained a favorite among readers and has achieved iconic status.

Baldwin’s second novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” sparked controversy and criticism for its homoerotic themes and the fact that Baldwin made white characters the centerpiece of the book. His 1955 collection of essays “Notes Of A Native Son” still resonates strongly to this day.

The Civil Rights Movement was another passion of Baldwin during the turbulent 1960s. Baldwin would join the movement through lengthy essays done in his usual forward style. His essay “Down At The Cross” would be published in two major issues in The New Yorker in 1963, eventually leading to Baldwin shining on the cover of TIME magazine that same year as he traveled the South and spoke about civil rights issues.

Baldwin’s long essay “No Name In The Street” was about the murders of his friends Malcolm X, Medgar Eversand dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Baldwin is also credited with bringing Nina Simone in the movement together with poet Langston Hughes and author of “Raisin In The Sun” Lorraine Hansberry.

Baldwin died of stomach cancer at age 63 in France, where he lived in his later years. He is buried in Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York.

Baldwin’s legacy still lives on in several ways: Author Toni Morrison edited and compiled a collection of Baldwin’s writings. Additionally, Baldwin’s work is a staple in many American high school and college literature classes. The United States Postal Service honored Baldwin in 2005 with a first-class postage stamp, which also featured a brief biography revealed after the stamp was peeled off.

Baldwin’s fearlessness as a writer contrasted sharply with the struggles he faced as a black man in America, weighed down by the looming specter of his sexuality. He triumphed despite those barriers and continues to influence young minds and readers to this day.

Happy Birthday, James Baldwin!


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