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.
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
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.
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.
- More information about Baldwin as well as links to related materials found in collections throughout the Library is published in various blog posts created by several different divisions. Reflecting on James Baldwin and His Celebration of Youth in From the Catbird Seat: Poetry & Literature At the Library of Congress notes the appearance of this same post in the brand new blog for families and kids, Minerva’s Kaleidoscope.
- Search on Harlem in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 to find stories and reminiscences of the community of James Baldwin’s youth, including some written by another author whose work addresses the themes of race and identity, Ralph Ellison.
- Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 contains a number of items from 1924, the year James Baldwin was born. Among these are issues and articles from four journals published in the New York area: The Messenger, edited by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, The Forum, Atlantic Monthly, and The Villager.
- Read the Today in History features on poets Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Also see the feature on the multi-talented Zora Neale Hurston. Search Today in History on poet or writer for additional American authors.
- The Van Vechten Collection showcases the photographs of Carl Van Vechten, one of the first critics to recognize and celebrate the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Browse the Occupational Index under the headings Poets, Authors, or Playwrights for images of writers including Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright.
- Learn more about the issues that informed Baldwin’s writing. Search on race relations in the following collections:
- See The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture, the first Library-wide resource guide to the institution’s African-American collections including books, periodicals, prints, photographs, music, film, and recorded sound covering 500 years of history.
- Many Library of Congress blogs have featured posts related to African American history. Browse these posts to find a wealth of featured digital materials.
- Explore the research guide Harlem Renaissance to find online Library resources related to this topic. Other African American digital materials are available through the African American History Month portal, as well as through the African American history web guides and research guides created by the Library’s reference specialists.