James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, and at age twelve took Countee Cullen’s French class at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, though he may have later forgotten about it. He would interview Cullen several years later for the DeWitt Clinton High School newspaper, and abandoned poetry after Cullen told him his work reminded him of Langston Hughes. He worked as a child preacher, laid railroad track in New Jersey, and toiled in a New York meatpacking plant. “By the time I was twenty-two,” he wrote, “I was a survivor.”
By the time he was forty, he was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers, having written the novels Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), and The Fire Next Time (1963), among other works. But still he was prevented from speaking at the March on Washington, because, according to Malcolm X, “they know Baldwin is liable to say anything.” Earlier that year, he had appeared on the public-television program Perspectives: The Negro and the American Promise, shortly after partaking in a disastrous conversation on civil rights with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “There are days—this is one of them,” he said on Perspectives, “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’s first essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Stranger in the Village,” appeared in its October 1953 issue. “From all available evidence, no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” it begins. “No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger.” The essay was later included in the collection Notes on a Native Son (1955), whose title essay was first published in Harper’s as “Me and My House . . .”. Harper’s was looking for another editor around the same time, according to Baldwin biographer W. J. Weatherby, and editor Anne G. Freedgood thought of Baldwin for the position, though “nothing came of her recommendation.” Harper’s also published his 1961 profile of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a series of letters to his agent, Robert P. Mills, which The New Yorker was originally supposed to publish.
Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, where he had spent the last seventeen years of his life. He had authored six novels, seven essay collections, a short-story collection, two poetry collections, a photo book with DeWitt Clinton classmate Richard Avedon, and a children’s story. Five thousand people attended his funeral service in New York. Odetta sang; Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Ambassador Emmanuel de Margerie spoke; and Baldwin himself closed the ceremony, with a recording of his interpretation of “Precious Lord.”