James Baldwin born 2 August 1924 (d. 1987)
James Baldwin was born at Harlem Hospital in New York City to a poor, unmarried, twenty-year-old woman named Emma Berdis Jones. Baldwin's early years were deeply troubled. At home - terrorised by an abusive stepfather; outside - taunted by his peers because he was short and 'effeminate'. As an adolescent, he sought refuge in the church, and after an emotionally charged spiritual conversion, he became at 14 a minister who regularly preached at evangelical churches in and near Harlem. As a young man , he held a variety of odd jobs - a rail road construction worker, waiter, bus boy, and elevator operator. It was during this time that he began to write seriously, beginning with book reviews and essays.
He also became fully aware of the implications of being black in America. Everyday exposure to racism left him deeply wounded. His increasing consciousness of his homosexuality added to his pain and confusion. To escape, he left for Paris in 1948 with $40 in his pocket and no knowledge of French. In France, where he would spend the better part of his remaining years, he became a professional writer.
Baldwin published 22 books during a career that lasted nearly 40 years; he wrote formal essays, fiction, drama, and poetry. In his early collections of essays such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961) he combined autobiography with astute observation to create brilliant critiques of American race relations.
A short story published in 1951 Outing - a story of sexual awakening centering on two adolescent boys - was his first 'gay' fiction. He revisited and developed the theme in his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953). The theme of sexual identity dominates Baldwin's second novel Giovanni's Room (1956) . Its all-white cast of characters and its candid treatment of homosexual romance 'disappointed' many of Baldwin's readers, but helped secure Baldwin's central place in gay American literature.
Another Country, Baldwin's controversial bestseller, was published in 1962. A complex narrative, it explicitly combines racial and sexual protests. Its setting is mostly New York; its plot is structured around the lives of eight racially, regionally, socio-economically, and sexually diverse characters. This multicultural cast constitutes a microcosmic America; the conflicts among them, therefore, become emblematic of larger crises in American society.
Subsequent novels further developed the themes of race and sexuality. Baldwin received a viciously hostile reaction to his gay-themed novels from angry black militants who were uncomfortable with the increasingly visible role of Baldwin - an openly gay black man - in the civil rights movement. His next novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) lacked a gay theme possibly in response to this, but his final novel Just Above My Head (1979) integrated a secondary gay theme.
Baldwin is a pioneering figure in 20th century literature. As a black gay writer in a mainly straight white culture, he offered in his work a sustained and articulate challenge to the dominant discourses of American racism and heterosexuality. As an African-American writer, he ranks among the finest. As a gay writer, he occupies a pre-eminent place.
Long before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 helped liberate the gay literary imagination in the United States, he boldly made his sexuality a vital part of his artistic vision. Even more important, by insisting on honest and open explorations of gay and bisexual themes in his fiction, he made a sharp break from the established African-American literary conventions. Through such a radical departure from tradition, he helped create the space for a generation of young African-American gay writers who succeeded him.
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