Photograph by Allan Warren taken in Hyde Park, London, 1969
African American, Literature, Cultural History
A prolific writer, activist, cultural theorist, James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in Harlem, New York, to Emma Berdis Jones, a single mother. His mother married David Baldwin, a laborer and preacher, and they raised Baldwin in Harlem. While he attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and worked to help his family make ends meet, he sought refuge in Pentecostalism, as his stepfather wanted, and grappled with his sexuality through young adulthood. At age 20, he enrolled in writing and drama classes at The New School for Social Research and performed in various productions of popular American plays.
By the age of twenty-four, Baldwin had embraced his religious calling, rejected the Pentecostal Church, challenged segregation laws, written and published an article, and relocated to Europe to avoid the fate of many African Americans: death or imprisonment. Baldwin considered Europe as a space where he could redefine and express himself personally and as a writer. He was awarded a Rosenwald, Guggenheim and multiple national writing fellowships, and he wrote for several magazines and publishing houses. Baldwin remained in France until 1957, when he returned to write about and participate in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1970, he returned to France, where he lived until his death. He continued to visit the US for extended stays. He was awarded an honorary doctorate (1979) and later served as Distinguished Fellow and Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
In his writing, Baldwin depicted the various ways that folk practices circulate, function, and shape African American identities and subjectivities within and outside African American communities. Throughout his publications, African American cultural expressions such as the blues, jazz, sermons, and spirituals communicate not only the beliefs and values of African American people but also the extraordinary strategies that African Americans employed to resist and survive racial oppression. Baldwin proclaimed that his texts bore witness to African American humanity, including aspects of Black gay life. Through his writings, he testified to the life and survival of working-class African Americans.
Baldwin’s contributions are varied and expansive: six novels, three plays, seven collaborative publications, eighteen short stories and essays, nine collections of essays, and five posthumous publications. His novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952) and If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), were adapted into Hollywood films and his life story turned into the award-winning documentaries “Price of a Ticket” (1989) and “I Am Not Your Negro” (2016).
The following publications demonstrate Baldwin’s complex treatment of folklore and folk practices as subjectivity and community building:
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952)
The Amen Corner: A Play (1954)
“Sonny Blues” (1957)