James Baldwin

On this date in 1924, writer James Arthur Baldwin (né Jones) was born in New York City to Emma Berdis Jones and an unknown father. His mother later married David Baldwin, a minister and factory worker who adopted him. The family, which included Baldwin’s eight siblings, led a life of poverty in Harlem. Baldwin had a particularly troubled relationship with his abusive and religious stepfather. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School and was a preacher for a Pentecostal church during his early teenage years.

At age 17 he left his family and traded Harlem for Greenwich Village to pursue a writing career. He eventually relinquished his religion and committed fully to his literary ambitions. He worked for a few years as a freelance writer, befriending novelist Richard Wright. After earning a scholarship in 1945 and publishing his first major essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” Baldwin moved to Paris, where he spent most of his life. He published his best-known work, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” in 1953 and wrote numerous novels, essays and poetry, including “Notes of a Native Son” (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956). He also wrote the plays The Amen Corner (1955) and Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), both well received.

Much of his work was inspired by 20th century social movements as well as his experiences living as a poor, black and homosexual man in a country that largely shunned these characteristics. For a while Baldwin returned to the U.S. to assist with the civil rights movement, for which he became a voice. He received the George Polk Award in 1963 for his journalism and was inducted into La Légion D’Honneur, the prestigious French order, in 1986. He continued writing and maintained a professorship at Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts until his untimely death from stomach cancer at age 63. D. 1987. 

Baldwin in London’s Hyde Park in 1969. Photo by Allan Warren. CC 3.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation