James Baldwin

Novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York City. The eldest of nine children, Baldwin grew up in poverty-stricken Harlem, where his stepfather was a preacher. Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, Baldwin himself preached at a small revivalist church, the Fireside Pentecostal. His first and most critically acclaimed novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was inspired by his experiences there.

The conundrum of color is the inheritance of every American…

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Portrait of James Baldwin. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Sept. 13, 1955. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Baldwin was heavily influenced by his Harlem middle school French teacher, famed poet Countee Cullen. Cullen, who obtained his master’s degree from Harvard University, was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance (also known as the New Negro Movement), a flourishing of artistic expression that emerged from the community of Harlem in New York City in the 1920s. Cullen devoted himself to the education of children in the last period of his life, and concentrated on teaching and writing children’s books. He opened up a new world of literary and artistic possibilities for black youth in Harlem, including James Baldwin.

Harlem’s millionairess, Alelia Walker, whose mother made her fortune with kink-no-more preparations, about this time became imbued with the desire to aid struggling artists. She set aside a floor of her town house at 208 West One Hundred and Thirty-sixth Street to be used as a studio for art exhibits, poetry recitals and musicales. Countee Cullen suggested Dark Tower as the name for this shrine of Harlem art and both he and Langston Hughes had poems inscribed on the walls.

“The Whites Invade Harlem,” Levi C. Hubert, writer; New York, NY, December 12, 1938. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

Portrait of Countee Cullen, in Central Park. [New York, NY]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, June 20, 1941. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948, where he spent the majority of the next eight years. During this time he created some of his most famous work, including the essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955) and the novel Giovanni’s Room (1956), where he explores the broad issues of race, sexuality, and identity. Baldwin’s work Nobody Knows My Name (1961) deals more explicitly with the subject of race relations in the United States.

The Library of Congress hosted James Baldwin on April 28, 1986 in the Coolidge Auditorium. He read selections from his essays and fictional works which were recorded for the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. This event can be listened to through this website.

James Baldwin Reading From His Works. Recorded Apr. 28, 1986, in the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Library of Congress

An active participant in the civil rights movement in the 1950s, in his later years Baldwin lived in both the U.S. and France, where he died in 1987.

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