James Baldwin is an author whose novels convey the stress and anxiety triggered by racial injustice and the complexities of human emotions and relationships. He is one of literature’s most influential writers from the late 20th century. With timeless works like “Another Country” and “Giovanni’s Room,” the author’s strong voice and intricate storylines prove that his legacy should never be diminished nor forgotten.
Born in 1924, Baldwin was raised in Harlem under trying circumstances. His stepfather struggled to make an income as an evangelical preacher and forced Baldwin and his eight siblings to practice religion constantly, creating tension between the two throughout his childhood.
After converting out of the Pentecostal faith as a teenager, Baldwin graduated from high school in 1942. Trying to find work to support the rest of his family, he took a job in the defense industry in New Jersey. During his time there, he faced acts of racism, discrimination and the strict rules of segregation, which would eventually impact his writing.
His stepfather died shortly after his move to New Jersey, and Baldwin decided to focus solely on writing, moving to Greenwich Village. While he supported himself through odd jobs, he met authors such as Richard Wright. Three years after graduating high school, Wright helped Baldwin win the 1945 Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship, an award that gave the author financial aid to help fund his creative studies.
However, Baldwin still struggled to write, finding the U.S. a debilitating place for writers of color. In 1948, he moved to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship to help pay for the cost. Today, most critics argue that this move was fundamental to Baldwin’s career.
In Paris, Baldwin published some of his best works, including 1952s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and 1954s “The Amen Corner.” Both novels pulled from the author’s own experience of straying from tradition and religion while battling racial injustice. Besides these works, Baldwin also published multiple essays like “Notes of a Native Son,” “Nobody Knows My Name” and “The Fire Next Time,” launching him into a successful career.
The essays were crucial to readers facing racial inequity, an extremely bold and controversial topic to discuss in literature during the 1950s and 1960s. Still, Baldwin’s works demonstrated an unapologetic approach to writing about society’s biggest issues. In an interview with Life magazine, Baldwin said, “An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell because nobody else can tell what it is like to be alive.”
Following his breakthrough into modern literature, Baldwin continued to write, publishing some of his most important novels like “Giovanni’s Room,” “Another Country” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” What makes each of these novels so good to this day is the way Baldwin approached intersectionality, aka the cross-section of race, gender and class, to portray different perspectives through the use of characters.
Being one of the first writers of color to integrate intersectionality during this period, Baldwin alluded to his own life in these works. He wrote about interracial love affairs and LGBTQIA+ characters and called out the heteronormative agenda found in the literature. While this caused outrage from organizations like the Black Arts Movement, who only wanted Baldwin to write about Black issues, Baldwin chugged on, not limiting his writing to one specific group of people.
Baldwin’s themes of acceptance, self-discovery and love continue to impact readers well after he died in 1987. Touching different realms of entertainment like theater and film, the author’s novels have since been adapted to the stage and the screen, such as “The Amen Corner” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Beyond his contributions to literature, theater and film, Baldwin has become a renowned author, taught in many schools and universities worldwide for his universal stance on writing. All in all, Baldwin’s work creates dialogue and space for minorities; his novels address injustice, racism and societal norms, and his writing will continue to live on.