" It is very nearly impossible... to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind."
--James Baldwin, "They Can't Turn Back," Mademoiselle, August 1960
James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2,1924, in Harlem, New York, to a single mother, Emma Jones. She never told her son the name of his biological father, who she'd left because of his drug abuse. When James was three years old Emma married a factory worker and Baptist minister named David Baldwin, with whom she had eight more children.
As a student in New York City public schools, James Baldwin was an avid reader anda gifted writer. He was the editor of the newspaper at Fredrick Douglass Junior High and a literary editor for his high school magazine, for which he wrote numerous plays, poems, and short stories. At home, he was treated cruelly by his stepfather, and later recalled turning to religion as a refuge.
At fourteen, Baldwin became a popular preacher at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly In Harlem. He was also spending time with poets and painters In Greenwich Village, writing In between odd jobs, and discovering himself as an artist and a gay black man. At seventeen, he rejected Christianity, writing In his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time, that "being in the pulpit, was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked."
In 1949 Baldwin moved to France, disillusioned by racial prejudice in the United States. Known for his groundbreaking explorations of identity, race, and class, Baldwin published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953 and his essay collection, Notes on a Native Son two years later. His second novel, Giovanni's Room, was controversial for its homoerotic content. An artist of many facets, Baldwin would become known not only as a prominent black writer, but as a gay writer and an exile writer. In all, he wrote six novels, two plays, numerous essay and poetry collections, and collaborated on other projects with well-known artists, poets, and musicians.
Returning to the United States in 1957, Baldwin became the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement. In a historic debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University in 1965, on the question: "Is the American Dream at the expense of...