American novelist and social activist James Baldwin was born today, August 2nd, in Manhattan in 1924.
The literary master’s deeply personal and provocative stories examined both the African American and homosexual experience when neither identity was accepted by American culture. His works would come to galvanize the nation and give a passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement and his influence on the development of a number of fellow emerging African American authors was unprecedented.
A native of Harlem, Baldwin’s writing career began in 1948 when left the United States for France to become a writer. While in Europe he published Go Tell It on the Mountain, his first novel, which immediately catapulted him to literary fame. Published in 1953, Go Tell it on the Mountain immediately established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that was at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicled a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.
Published three years after his best-selling debut novel, Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room was met with controversy for its explicit depictions of homosexuality and bisexuality. Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, the narrative centered on a young man caught between desire and conventional morality. Baldwin’s publisher warned him that the book’s themes would alienate him from his readership and that it would ruin his career. Upon publication, however, critics favored the work due to Baldwin’s established literary reputation. The book was praised for its moving expression of the the mystery of loving and revelation of the unspoken complexities of the human heart. “If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one” (Michael Ondaatje).
In 1957, Baldwin returned to the U.S. to lend his voice to the cause of civil rights. He met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 while writing a story on the Civil Rights Movement for Harper’s magazine and attending the 1963 March on Washington. Baldwin’s work during this period offered a powerful dissection of the American racial conundrum as he continued to work in fiction and published several powerful essays in addition speaking at several engagements and rallies.
A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, The Fire Next Time galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the collection of essays proved to be an intensely personal and provocative document. The work consisted of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhorted Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. The Fire Next Time was described by The New York Times Book Review as “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle…all presented in searing, brilliant prose,” The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of our literature.
Following the publication of The Fire Next Time in 1963, Baldwin was invited to the Manhattan apartment of Robert F. Kennedy to discuss the current state of race relations in the United States. In addition to several other prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement including Kenneth Clark and Clarence Benjamin Jones, Baldwin invited emerging African American journalist Lorraine Hansberry who had become an important voice in the movement. Hansberry moved to Harlem in 1951 where she joined the staff of the African American journal Freedom Newspaper and worked on stories not only related to the Civil Rights Movement, but global struggles against colonialism and imperialism. It was during the period in which she conceived of A Raisin in the Sun that she also became involved in the emerging gay rights movement, of which James Baldwin had become the leading literary voice.
Baldwin’s life and work have been adapted into several documentaries and feature films, including the PBS American Masters episode James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket and 2018 American romantic drama film If Beale Street Could Talk. In addition to the important works featured above, our collection currently includes Baldwin’s first edition copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and a signed first edition of his collaboration with Margaret Meade, A Rap on Race.