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5 Fascinating Facts About James Baldwin

Kritika Agrawal
Allan Warren, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Allan Warren, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Allan Warren, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924, was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Baldwin worked in a variety of mediums; he was a novelist as well as an essayist and a playwright whose work largely focused on issues related to race, class, and sexuality in the mid-1900s.

In 1948, at the age of 24, a practically penniless Baldwin moved to Paris in order to distance himself from the bigotry he found and faced in America. Five years later he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical story about a Harlem teen growing up in the 1930s and the sometimes-challenging relationships he has with both his family and the church.

Even if you've read all of his work, there are still some things you might not know about James Baldwin.

1. James Baldwin was a preacher in his teen years.

Baldwin’s mother, Emma Jones, never told him about his biological father. He was raised by his stepfather, a Baptist Minister named David Baldwin, but their relationship was a strained one. One thing the two did have in common, at least for a few years, was a commitment to religion.

In his essay "Letter From a Region in My Mind," Baldwin wrote about experiencing a “prolonged religious crisis” and how “I became, during my fourteenth year, for the first time in my life, afraid—afraid of the evil within me and afraid of the evil without.” He wrote:

"My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy. It had to be recognized, after all, that I was still a schoolboy, with my schoolwork to do, and I was also expected to prepare at least one sermon a week. During what we may call my heyday, I preached much more often than that. This meant that there were hours and even whole days when I could not be interrupted—not even by my father. I had immobilized him. It took rather more time for me to realize that I had also immobilized myself, and had escaped from nothing whatever."

2. American Harlem Renaissance painter Beauford Delaney was James Baldwin’s mentor.

When Baldwin was just 15 years old, he met American painter Beauford Delaney, whom he quickly came to consider both a great friend and mentor. Baldwin also found a sort of father figure in the artist and would often refer to Delaney as his "spiritual father." He described Delaney as “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist.”

3. James Baldwin played a part in getting Maya Angelou's first novel published.

Rob Croes, Anefo // Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

James Baldwin and Maya Angelou shared a special relationship. One night, Baldwin brought Angelou to a party at the New York City home of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy. At some point in the evening, many of the guests began sharing stories of their childhood, and Judy was particularly moved by Angelou's tale.

Judy shared Angelou's story with Random House editor Robert Loomis, and urged him to ask Angelou to write a book—but Angelou declined, saying that she was wrote poems and plays, not books. Loomis appealed to Angelou several more times, but each time she declined. So on his fourth attempt to get her to say yes, a now very determined Loomis employed a different approach.

“It’s just as well you don’t attempt to write autobiography, because to write an autobiography as literature is almost impossible,” Loomis said. That challenge piqued Angelou's interest: “Maybe I’ll try it,” she replied. The result was 1969's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

4. James Baldwin abandoned America after his best friend died by suicide.

In a 1948 interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin talked about his reasons for leaving America in 1948. "My luck was running out," Baldwin said. "I was going to go to jail, I was going to kill somebody or be killed. My best friend had committed suicide two years earlier.”

In the same interview, Baldwin talked about his reasons for choosing to live in France. "It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France," he said. "It was a matter of getting out of America. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under, like my friend.”

5. James Baldwin worked as a film critic.

Though he is best known for his novels, Baldwin wrote criticism as well. In his book-length essay "The Devil Finds Work," he wrote about American cinema in much the same way he wrote his novels, and was particularly interested in what cinema had to say about race.

In discussing The Exorcist, Baldwin wrote: “The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children—can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”