Rebellious Writers: James Baldwin

James Baldwin
Category: Reading

James Baldwin was a writer, activist and political commentator whose work deconstructed prevailing myths of African-American experience in the 20th century America, highlighting the inheritances of slavery and the need for a severe redress of human rights. Baldwin’s work transcended the era he lived in, and his tireless work for equality, particularly the Civil Rights movement, made him a renowned public figure.

Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York in 1924. His mother left his biological father, later marrying another man with whom she had eight children. Baldwin’s stepfather was a preacher and often abusive to his stepson, who spent the majority of his youth in libraries as an escape. It was here that his talent and passion for writing developed. After he left high school, Baldwin worked a number of odd jobs whilst continuing his fervent self-education. In 1948, after becoming disillusioned by life in America, he moved to France, where he continued to write before returning to the US in 1957 to support the Civil Rights movement.

Baldwin wrote unapologetically about the realities of day-to-day life for black people living in America 

Baldwin wrote unapologetically about the realities of day-to-day life for black people living in America. For Baldwin, the prejudices inherent to the era of slavery were still firmly embedded in the consciousness of white Americans. His essays on race highlight the contradictions of a society which has refused to acknowledge the debilitating collective history of slavery and which holds the black individual in a permanent second-class status, majoritively segregated from middle-class white Americans.

His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences as a young preacher in a revivalist church. The book tells the story of John Grimes and his violent, religiously centred stepfather, John. The book is not as overt in its presentation of racial inequality as Baldwin’s later novels or essays and is more focussed on the hypocritical and morally repugnant position of religion. At the same time, Baldwin references how religion is often one of the few positive forces in the lives of a repressed people.

Baldwin’s sexuality has been well documented. Openly gay, and black, living in America at a time when both being gay and black meant marginalisation, Baldwin’s work was often dismissed or ignored by readers and writers. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, published three years after Mountain, tells the story of a young writer, James, living in Paris and the frustrations of his relationships with both men and women, particularly a bartender named Giovanni. Baldwin drew his characters with sympathy and realism, exposing many readers to relationships and lifestyles they knew little about. The reaction to the book was less than favourable; however, Giovanni’s Room is now frequently cited as one of the seminal texts for gay representation. The book also deals with themes of separation and alienation. Baldwin had recently moved from America to France and his pain at having to abandon the country he was born in to find acceptance elsewhere is a major strand of the book.

Giovanni’s Room is now frequently cited as one of the seminal texts for gay representation

Baldwin’s writing has influenced a number of writers, intellectuals and artists. Particularly the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, an American political commentator and national correspondent for The Atlantic, was heavily inspired by Baldwin’s life and work whilst studying at Brown University. His bestselling book, Between the World and Me, which takes on the form of a letter addressed to his young son, mirrors Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which Baldwin addressed to his nephew. Between the World and Me was published when America was reeling from a number of fatal shootings of young black men, mistaken for police suspects. The book is passionate and incisive, highlighting the precarious position of black people living in areas of severe depredation.

For Coates, the issues that Baldwin laid bare are still a major problem in America today. In an era when a disproportionate number of black Americans are in jail, Coates, along with a number of black academics and political commentators, sees this as a reflection of white America’s refusal to acknowledge, and make reparations for, the violent history of slavery. To Coates, the idea of whiteness is predicated on what he terms the plunder of black bodies. In other words, the capitalist drive to own material goods and acquire power and property has come as a direct result of harnessing the manpower of black slaves.

While Baldwin is now recognised as one of the most important voices of his generation, his life reflects the starkly uncomfortable position of black people in 20th century America. Forced to abandon his home country to find acceptance abroad, frequently the target of homophobic abuse – even from other black writers or intellectuals – Baldwin’s work allowed for a transition from the limited and hugely damaging perception of black people in America. His writing forced readers to confront truths they were not only uncomfortable with but, often, totally oblivious to. His enduring influence on a new generation of writers, readers and political activists highlights that real equality in America is not something to be protected, but something to obtain. 

Want to read about more rebellious writers? Have a look at our other post on the life and work of Edith Wharton.

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