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James Baldwin: Writer shared insights on humanity, spirituality, race

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations and activists like James Baldwin that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

James Baldwin had always known that he was smart. But growing up poor in Harlem, during times of racial inequality made it difficult for him to envision his future.

“I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use,” he said. Born in 1924, Baldwin had a childhood that lacked peace because of his stepfather, a cruel man who mistreated him while favoring his younger brothers and sisters. And so, Baldwin spent much of his childhood in solitude, thumbing through the pages of books inside of his neighborhood library.

» MORE: Full coverage of Black History Month

At age 13, he wrote his first article, which was published in his school’s newspaper when he was living in Harlem. His teachers deemed him gifted at an early age, but it took a few more years before Baldwin would realize that his talent and intelligence could lead him to a path of success. It wasn’t until he met painter Beauford Delaney that he realized that a black person could be an artist.

As a child and as a teenager, Baldwin was harassed and tortured by police on two separate occasions. His stepfather died in 1943. The funeral was the same day as Baldwin's 19th birthday and the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. He used these moments to shape his writing and his views of race relations in the United States.

» RELATED: W.E.B. Du Bois: Towering intellectual and civil rights warrior

Actor Marlon Brando (right) poses with his arm around James Baldwin, author and civil rights leader, in front of the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington demonstration ceremonies that followed the mass parade. Posing with them are actors Charlton Heston (left) and Harry Belafonte. AP PHOTO
Actor Marlon Brando (right) poses with his arm around James Baldwin, author and civil rights leader, in front of the Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington demonstration ceremonies that followed the mass parade. Posing with them are actors Charlton Heston (left) and Harry Belafonte. AP PHOTO

Baldwin was a prolific novelist and essayist, and his work is often described as painting a much-needed picture of the pain that African Americans felt leading up to the civil rights movement. But Baldwin’s work did more than that.

With a daring pen and the desire to see the world differently, Baldwin wrote stories that spoke to the underdog in many forms. In his novels “Another Country,” which was published in 1962, and “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” (1968), his writing explored themes of sexual identity as well as race.

» RELATED: The Doll Test: How black and white dolls exposed racial shame

After graduating from high school, Baldwin worked odd jobs to support his family. At every turn, Baldwin experienced discrimination when at restaurants and bars, and he was eventually fired from a job in New Jersey where he laid railroad tracks for the U.S. Army.

This led him to Greenwich Village, which has been described as a bohemian arts district in New York City, where he was able to obtain a literary apprenticeship. His skill and eloquence with writing was mostly self-taught, and in 1948, Baldwin left for France, hoping to be able to feel more like a person than he had in America.

“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I see where I came from very clearly … I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both,” Baldwin once told The New York Times in 1985. In Paris, he focused on his writing and published such works as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room.”

» RELATED: Phillis Wheatley: America’s first black published poet

Author James Baldwin, shown in a Feb. 25, 1985, file photo, wrote stories that spoke to the underdog in many forms. AP PHOTO / LOS ANGELES TIMES
Author James Baldwin, shown in a Feb. 25, 1985, file photo, wrote stories that spoke to the underdog in many forms. AP PHOTO / LOS ANGELES TIMES

Between the two novels came a collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), which detailed the black experience in America. After having lived in France for eight years, Baldwin returned to the U.S. and became a prolific figure in the fight for civil rights. He was moved by an image of Dorothy Counts, who braved a mob to desegregate schools in Charlotte, North Carolina. His editor at the time pushed him to return to the U.S. to provide insight on what was happening in the American South.

This portrait of author James Baldwin was taken Sept. 13, 1955, by photographer Carl Van Vechten. CONTRIBUTED BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
This portrait of author James Baldwin was taken Sept. 13, 1955, by photographer Carl Van Vechten. CONTRIBUTED BY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

» RELATED: Black double-consciousness: Century-plus concept still valid

Baldwin made the trip back to the U.S. and conducted interviews throughout Charlotte and Montgomery, Alabama. Shortly after, Baldwin’s work started to receive more mainstream attention, and Time featured him on the cover of its May 17, 1963, issue. “There is not another writer,” wrote Time, “who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”

In 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer in France, but his legacy and his works continue to live on. His novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” was adapted into a feature film in 2018 and was nominated for three Golden Globes and three Oscars (Regina King won a Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actress), and his work and insight into the black American experience are still referenced to this day.

The AJC Sepia James Baldwin Reading List

James Baldwin’s publishing history spans from his first published work, a review in “The Nation” of the writer Maxim Gorky, through his death in 1987. Between then, he wrote a number of books, articles, novels, essays and autobiographies, telling the unflinching story of African Americans.

Here are a few of the essentials:

A James Baldwin reading list, including “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Notes of a Native Son,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Another Country,” “Sonny’s Blues” and “The Price of the Ticket.”
A James Baldwin reading list, including “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Notes of a Native Son,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Another Country,” “Sonny’s Blues” and “The Price of the Ticket.”

Novels 

· "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1953)

· "Giovanni's Room" (1956)

· "Another Country" (1962)

· "Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone" (1968)

· "If Beale Street Could Talk" (1974)

Essays 

· "Notes of a Native Son" (1955)

· "Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes From a Native Son" (1961)

· "The First Next Time" (1963)

· "The Price of the Ticket" (1985)

Short Stories 

· "Sonny's Blues" (1957)

Plays 

· "Blues for Mister Charlie" (1964)

Screenplays 

· "One Day When I Was Lost" (Baldwin's screenplay about his friend Malcolm X, following his assassination. The film was never made, but Spike Lee used parts of Baldwin's screenplay for his 1992 film, "Malcolm X.")

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African American pioneer in the Living section every day except Fridays. The stories will run in the Metro section on that day.

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.