Black, gay and intellectual: in 1960s America, it was nearly impossible to fully reconcile these identities in the public sphere. And yet, novelist and social critic James Baldwin persevered.
Born in 1924 in Harlem to a working-class family, Baldwin is most known for his work entitled “Notes of a Native Son,” a collection of essays on racial, sexual and class distinction. His passion and talent for writing was discovered at an early age; 13-year-old Baldwin was first published in the school newspaper with an article entitled “Harlem-Then and Now.” Also discovered early was social injustice in the form of racism and police abuse at age ten, which heavily influenced Baldwin’s later works.
At 24, Baldwin, angered and frustrated by American racial prejudice, left home for Paris. In removing himself from the context of American politics, he hoped to gain perspective on himself and the plight of Black America. Baldwin became involved in the Left Bank, a culturally radical association of artists, writers and philosophers including Sartre, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
“Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin’s explicitly homoerotic second novel, caused quite a stir in 1956. Interestingly, the story centers around white characters, contrary to public expectancy for black writers to write black characters. Baldwin made a name for himself in surpassing expectation, to say the least. His civil rights activist work included speaking on television and college campuses, his rhetorical eloquence capturing the attention of both sides of the conflict.
Baldwin was a somewhat controversial figure even in the midst of his contemporaries. He was heavily critical of organizations like the Christian church, the NAACP and the Black Panther party. His last work, unfinished at the time of his death, tells his story as a black man in America through the lives of three of his murdered friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “Remember this House” was later the basis for the 2016 documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
Baldwin succumbed to stomach cancer in 1987 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. During a talk on the fiftieth anniversary of “The New York Review of Books,” editor Darryl Pinckney said of Baldwin’s work: “There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin’s sentences and the cool of his tone, something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible and Harlem.” Baldwin’s legacy persists as a witness and advocate for truth and he remains a vitally important figure in both African-American and queer history.
Caroline Fritz is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in French and linguistics.. CF853302@wcupa.edu.