Growing up in Harlem, the oldest of nine children, James Baldwin cared for his eight siblings in the shadow of an abusive stepfather and began preaching sermons in 1938 when he was fourteen. Those years and the dawning realization of the difficulties of being black and gay in America are covered in his autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which he wrote as an expatriate, having left New York for France when he was twenty-four, with only his typewriter, two Bessie Smith records, some clothes, forty dollars cash, and no comprehension of French. After a stint in London, he finished his novel in Switzerland. Although he had published trenchant essays and reviews in The Nation, The Partisan Review, and Commentary, had won a Rosenwald Fellowship, and had the backing of Richard Wright, American publishers rejected his manuscript. Only after a British publisher accepted the novel did they relent, and its U.S. publication was a success.
Baldwin then wrote a play, The Amen Corner, and published his first of six essay collections, Notes of a Native Son. Critics and readers alike expected his second novel, Giovanni's Room, to illuminate the black experience but all the characters are white and the plot revolves around a gay love affair between an American and his Italian boyfriend who is to be executed in the morning. Shocking for 1956. His next novels, Another Country (1962) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone(1968), reflect the broader unrest and violence of the Sixties, with characters black and white, straight, bi, and gay. Between those novels, the New Yorker published, in two oversized issues, Baldwin’s seminal, angry, warning cry, “Down at the Cross” which became the bulk of his essay collection, The Fire Next Time.
Judging the dominant society by its actions rather than its words, Baldwin did not shrink from referring to the “cruel white majority” as “moral monsters,” or from lamenting the new absence of moral authority in Harlem. He considered “urban renewal” to mean "Negro removal." Gore Vidal claims that JFK and RFK (with whom Baldwin’s friends had had a fractious meeting as Attorney General) referred to Baldwin as “Martin Luther Queen.” His FBI file was 1,750 pages by 1987, when he died in Saint-Paul de Vence, having spent much of his life in France and Istanbul. Toni Morrison edited the collections of his works for Library of America, and he was honored with a US postage stamp in 2005. Randall Kenan gathered Baldwin's uncollected writings in The Cross of Redemption.
[Image of Baldwin and Nina Simone from the NYPL.]