Baldwin’s essays, for instance “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th century America, vis-à-vis their inevitable if unnameable tensions with personal identity, assumptions, uncertainties, yearning, and questing. Some Baldwin essays are booklength, for instance The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).
His novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks yet also of male homosexuals—depicting as well some internalized impediments to such individuals’ quest for acceptance—namely in his second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), written well before the equality of homosexuals was widely espoused in America. Baldwin’s best-known novel is his first, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
When Baldwin was an infant, his mother, Emma Berdis Jones,divorced his father because of drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York, where she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. James spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At age ten, he was beaten by a gang of police officers. His adoptive father, whom James in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated James—versus James’s siblings—with singular harshness.
His stepfather died in summer of 1943 soon before James turned 19. The day of the funeral was James’s 19th birthday, his father’s last child was born, and Harlem rioted, the portrait opening his essay “Notes of a Native Son”. The quest to answer or explain familial and social repudiation—and attain a sense of self both coherent and benevolent—became a motif in Baldwin’s writing.
James attended the prestigious, mostly Jewish DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, where, along with Richard Avedon, he worked on the school magazine—Baldwin was its literary editor. After high school, Baldwin studied at The New School, finding an intellectual community.
At age 14, Baldwin joined the Pentecostal Church and became a Pentecostal preacher. The difficulties of life, as well as his abusive stepfather, who was a preacher, delivered him to the church. During a euphoric prayer meeting, Baldwin converted, and soon became junior minister at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly. He drew larger crowds than did his father.
At 17, Baldwin came to view Christianity as falsely premised, however, and later regarded his time in the pulpit as a remedy to his personal crises. His early experience with the church influenced Baldwin’s writing.
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin discusses his visit with Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, who inquired about Baldwin’s religious beliefs. Baldwin answered, “I left the church 20 years ago and haven’t joined anything since.” Elijah asked, “And what are you now?” Baldwin explained, “I? Now? Nothing. I’m a writer. I like doing things alone.”
Baldwin viewed Muhammad’s beliefs about white devils to be just as outrageous as biblical beliefs.
Though he was irreligious, it’s not clear if Baldwin was an atheist. He never identified himself as such, and didn’t clarify if he still believed in God despite leaving Christianity. He retained enough interest in religion that he was recorded singing “Precious Lord,” a famous gospel song composed by Thomas A. Dorsey.
Baldwin often criticized Christianity for, in his mind, supporting slavery. He castigated blacks who used religion as an excuse to accept oppression. However he also praised religion for inspiring African Americans to fight against racism.
Life in Greenwich Village
When Baldwin was 15, his running buddy, Emile Capouya, at DeWtitt Clinton High School had skipped school one day and, in Greenwich Village, met one Beauford Delaney, a painter. Emile gave James the address, and suggested a visit. James, who worked at a sweatshop on Canal Street, in the general area, and who dreaded going home after school, visited Beauford—at 181 Greene Street—who became a mentor to James, his first realization that a black person could be an artist. And so his social life in the Village began. While working odd jobs, he wrote short stories, essays, and book reviews, some of them collected in the volume Notes of a Native Son (1955).
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin began to recognize his own homosexuality. In 1948, disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin left the United States and departed to Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice. He fled in order to see himself and his writing beyond an African American context and to be read as not “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”. Also, he left the United States desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African American men like himself succumbed to in New York.
In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero, which was edited by his friend Themistocles Hoetis and which had already published essays by Richard Wright.
He would live as an expatriate in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his life and after it, Baldwin would be seen not only as an influential African American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside of the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin’s life and his writing.
In 1953, Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, was published. Baldwin’s first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. Baldwin continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known.
Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, stirred controversy when it was first published in 1956 due to its explicit homoerotic content. Baldwin was again resisting labels with the publication of this work: despite the reading public’s expectations that he would publish works dealing with the African American experience, Giovanni’s Room is exclusively about white characters. Baldwin’s next two novels, Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, are sprawling, experimental works dealing with black and white characters and with heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual characters. These novels struggle to contain the turbulence of the 1960s: they are saturated with a sense of violent unrest and outrage.
Baldwin’s lengthy essay Down at the Cross (frequently called The Fire Next Time after the title of the book in which it was published) similarly showed the seething discontent of the 1960s in novel form. The essay was originally published in two oversized issues of The New Yorker and landed Baldwin on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 while Baldwin was touring the South speaking about the restive Civil Rights movement. The essay talked about the uneasy relationship between Christianity and the burgeoning Black Muslim movement. Baldwin’s next book-length essay, No Name in the Street, also discussed his own experience in the context of the later 1960s, specifically the assassinations of three of his personal friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baldwin’s writings of the 1970s and 1980s have been largely overlooked by critics, though even these texts are beginning to receive attention. Eldridge Cleaver‘s vicious homophobic attack on Baldwin in Soul on Ice, and Baldwin’s return to southern France contributed to the sense that he was not in touch with his readership. Always true to his own convictions rather than to the tastes of others, Baldwin continued to write what he wanted to write. His two novels written in the 1970s, If Beale Street Could Talk and Just Above My Head, placed a strong emphasis on the importance of black families, and he concluded his career by publishing a volume of poetry, Jimmy’s Blues, as well as another book-length essay, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, which was an extended meditation inspired by the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980s.
Social and political activism
Baldwin returned to the United States in the summer of 1957 while the Civil Rights Act of that year was being debated in Congress. He had been powerfully moved by the image of a young girl braving a mob in an attempt to desegregate schools in Charlotte, N.C., and Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv had suggested he report on what was happening in the American south. Baldwin was nervous about the trip but he made it, interviewing people in Charlotte, Atlanta (where he met Martin Luther King), and Montgomery, Alabama. The result was two essays, one published in Harper’s magazine (“The Hard Kind of Courage”), the other in Partisan Review (“Nobody Knows My Name”). Subsequent Baldwin articles on the movement appeared in Mademoiselle, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker, where in 1962 he published the essay he called “Down at the Cross” and the New Yorker called “Letter from a Region of My Mind”. Along with a shorter essay from The Progressive, the essay became The Fire Next Time. 
While he wrote about the movement, Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963 he conducted a lecture tour of the South for CORE, traveling to locations like Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana. During the tour, he lectured to students, white liberals, and anyone else listening about his racial ideology, an ideological position between the “muscular approach” of Malcolm X and the nonviolent program of Martin Luther King Jr..
By the Spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover. “There is not another writer,” said Time, “who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” In a cable Baldwin sent to Attorney General Robert Kennedy during the crisis, Baldwin blamed the violence in Birmingham on the FBI, J.Edgar Hoover, Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland, and President Kennedy for failing to use “the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be.” Attorney General Kennedy invited Baldwin to meet with him over breakfast, and that meeting was followed up with a second, when Kennedy met with Baldwin and others Baldwin had invited to Kennedy’s Manhattan apartment. The delegation included Kenneth Clark, a sociologist who had played a key role in the Brown v. Board of Education decision; actor Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne, writer Lorraine Hansberry, and activists from civil rights organizations. Although most of the attendees of this meeting left feeling “devastated,” the meeting was an important one in voicing the concerns of the civil rights movement and it provided exposure of the civil rights issue not just as a political issue but also as a moral issue.
Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963, with Belafonte and long time friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church not long after the March on Washington, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this “terrifying crisis.” He traveled to Selma, Alabama, where SNCC had organized a voter registration drive; he watched mothers with babies and elderly men and women standing in long lines for hours, as armed deputies and state troopers stood by — or intervened to smash a reporter’s camera or use cattle prods on SNCC workers. After his day of watching, he spoke in a crowded church, blaming Washington –“the good white people on the hill.” Returning to Washington, he told a New York Post reporter the federal government could protect Negroes–it could send federal troops into the South. He blamed the Kennedys for not acting. In March 1964, Baldwin joined marchers who walked 50 miles from Selma, Alabama, to the capitol in Montgomery under the protection of federal troops.
Nonetheless, he rejected the label civil rights activist, or that he had participated in a civil rights movement, instead agreeing with Malcolm X‘s assertion that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one’s civil rights. In a 1979 speech at UC Berkeley, he called it, instead, “the latest slave rebellion.”
In 1968, Baldwin signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
Inspiration and relationships
A great influence on Baldwin was the painter Beauford Delaney. In The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin describes Delaney as “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist. In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place, he would have been recognized as my teacher and I as his pupil. He became, for me, an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.”
Later support came from Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called “the greatest black writer in the world.” Wright and Baldwin became friends, and Wright helped Baldwin secure the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Award. Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son” and his essay collection Notes of a Native Son allude to Wright’s novel Native Son. In Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, however, Baldwin indicated that Native Son, like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, lacked credible characters and psychological complexity, and the two authors’ friendship ended. Interviewed by Julius Lester, however, Baldwin explained, “I knew Richard and I loved him. I was not attacking him; I was trying to clarify something for myself.”
In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger, age 17, though Happersberger’s marriage three years later left Baldwin distraught. Happersberger died on August 21, 2010 in Switzerland.
Baldwin was a close friend of the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. With Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin helped awaken Simone to the civil rights movement then gelling. Baldwin also offered her with literary references influential on her later work.
Baldwin influenced the work of French painter Philippe Derome, whom he met in Paris in the early 1960s. Baldwin also knew Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet (with whom he campaigned on behalf of the Black Panther Party), Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Jr., Margaret Mead, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Maya Angelou.
Early on December 1, 1987 (some sources say late on November 30) Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.