James Baldwin is a force of literature and a main voice from the Civil Rights Movement. He helped shaped the way Americans think about racial injustice through his essays, books, plays, and social activism in the movement.
Born August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York City, Baldwin grew up under trying circumstances. His stepfather being an evangelical preacher, he was exposed to and reared under an intensely religious household. This influence would lead him to becoming a young minister for three years before abandoning the church to write full time. Baldwin always struggled with the tenants of Christianity, a battle exemplified in his works, like the battle we see Meridian face after the death of his son.
As his stepfather's health deteriorated, Baldwin found himself
working to support his family in defense work. The racial prejudice of American society proved too suffocating for him, however, and after his stepfather's death he dedicated himself entirely to writing.
He moved to Greenwich Village, New York to focus on writing. He received several grants which helped support him. Yet even though he experienced mild successes, including being published in noteworthy publications such as Nation, New Leader, and Commentary, Baldwin was dissatisfied with his home country and his work so much so that in 1948 he moved to Paris to escape oppressive segregation and prejudice.
The move proved to be stimulating and freeing for Baldwin's creativity. He proceded to write several of his major works, including Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room.
Because of his prolific works and oratory training from his years as a minister, Baldwin found himself a key public figure during the Civil Rights Movement. He speeches and writings helped frame our modern American understanding of racial inequality in this country. Though he was a crucial member of the movement, he increasingly found himself disillusioned with his growing celebrity, and was devastated to watch his friends Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X assassinated for their efforts.
Baldwin lived out the rest of his years primarily in France, seeing himself as a "commuter" rather than expatriate.
"Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both."
Baldwin intimated through his works a vulnerable honesty of what racism did to the human heart. His works played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement and well after his death. We have an intimate view of the stains of racism we bear on our hearts and the history books of this country, in part thanks to Baldwin. His death in 1987 sparked a renewed interest in his works, though it is clear that they have never been forgotten, and will continue to play a crucial role in public discourse as long as they tug on the heartstrings of this nation.