Born on this day: James Baldwin
Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays, and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
James Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. The oldest of nine children, he grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious father. As a child, he cast about for a way to escape his circumstances. As he recalls, I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use. By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
During this early part of his life, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a preacher. Of those teen years, Baldwin recalled, Those three years in the pulpit “I didn’t realize it then that is what turned me into a writer, really, dealing with all that anguish and that despair and that beauty.” Many have noted the strong influence of the language of the church on Baldwin’s style, its cadences and tone. Eager to move on, Baldwin knew that if he left the pulpit he must also leave home, so at eighteen he took a job working for the New Jersey railroad.
After working for a short while with the railroad, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he came into contact with the well-known writer Richard Wright. Baldwin worked for a number of years as a freelance writer, working primarily on book reviews. Though Baldwin had not yet finished a novel, Wright helped to secure him a grant with which he could support himself as a writer in Paris. So, in 1948 Baldwin left for Paris, where he would find enough distance from the American society he grew up in to write about it. Read More