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James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem. “[I]n those days,” he wrote in 1961, “that part of town was called The Hollow and now it’s called Junkie’s Hollow.” His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, had eight more children in the decade after his birth, and James became their de facto caretaker. “As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other.” His stepfather, David Baldwin, the son of a slave, was a preacher from New Orleans who beat James, his mother, and his brothers, and had him circumcised at the age of five.
Baldwin joined Countee Cullen’s French class at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in 1936, at age twelve, and was later, with Richard Avedon, Cullen’s student in high school. Baldwin interviewed Cullen, an esteemed poet and frequent Harper’s Magazine contributor, for the high school literary journal, The Magpie, of which he was literary editor. “Have you found that there is much prejudice against the Negro in the literary world?” Baldwin asked. “No,” Cullen replied, “in this field one gets pretty much what he deserves.”
For a short while, Baldwin was a child preacher; as a young man, he laid railroad track in New Jersey and toiled in a New York meatpacking plant. He was harassed for his homosexuality but came to accept it, and once roomed with Marlon Brando. His stepfather, David, was committed to a mental institution in 1943 and soon died of tuberculosis. “[A] few hours later, his last child was born,” James wrote in “Me and My House . . . ,” which was published in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s. David was buried on James’s nineteenth birthday, the same day a riot erupted in Harlem. “As we drove him to the graveyard,” James wrote, “the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent, and hatred were all around us.”
In 1948, after writing an “unsalable” novel and a number of book reviews — “mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert” — Baldwin left the country in order to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” He departed for France on November 11, 1948.
His second novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, came out five years later, in 1953. That October Harper’s published “Stranger in the Village,” its first essay by Baldwin. “From all available evidence,” it began, “no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.” “Me and My House . . . ,” his second essay for the magazine, is widely regarded as his finest; it became the title piece of his first essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. His next novel, Giovanni’s Room, which Baldwin called “another declaration of independence,” details an American expatriate’s homosexual affair with an Italian man. “One thing that Jimmy’s got that’s good is that he’s stubborn,” his brother David later remarked. “When they said, Giovanni’s Room will destroy your career, he said, ‘I’m sorry — that’ll have to happen.’ ”
Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957, the summer the Civil Rights Act was debated in Congress, and emerged as one of the foremost figures in what he called “the latest slave rebellion” — “or what American newspapers erroneously term the civil rights movement.” He was on the cover of the May 17, 1963, issue of Time, under the caption, “Birmingham and Beyond: The Negro’s Push for Equality.” The following week, Baldwin partook of a disappointing conversation on civil rights, organized at Robert Kennedy’s behest, with a group including Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and Rip Torn. Kennedy asserted during the discussion that, regardless of their differences, everyone in the room that day was blessed. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Baldwin retorted. “My life is not blessed. I live in hell.” Appearing on a public-television program to discuss race later that evening, he concluded: “There are days — this is one of them — when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it, how precisely you’re going to reconcile yourself to your situation here, and how you’re going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel, white majority that you are here.”
Baldwin was prevented from speaking at the 1964 March on Washington (“They wouldn’t let him get up there because they know Baldwin is liable to say anything,” Malcolm X said), and in the early 1970s, after the assassinations of his friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King., Jr., he returned to France, where on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, he died. He had authored six novels, seven essay collections, a short-story collection, two poetry collections, a photobook with Avedon, and a children’s story. Five thousand people attended his funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Odetta sang; Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and French ambassador Emmanuel de Margerie spoke; and the ceremony closed with a recording of Baldwin singing “Precious Lord.”
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”