James Baldwin, who was born in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924, was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Baldwin worked in a variety of genres; 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 strained. 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 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. He published reviews before he published fiction.
Baldwin’s first piece in a national magazine wasn’t a work of fiction, but a review of the late 19th- and early 20th-century Russian writer Maxim Gorky titled “Maxim Gorki as Artist” that appeared in the April 12, 1947 issue of The Nation. Colm Tóibín writes in the literary journal Brick that Baldwin was “a reviewer with attitude, a writer with a high sense of aesthetic grandeur, an Edmund Wilson with real poison in his pen.” Take, for example, what Baldwin had to say about Gorky: “He is far from a careful writer and by no means a great one.” Or his opinion about The Postman Always Rings Twice author James M. Cain: “Not only did he have nothing to say, but he drooled, so to speak, as he said it.”
4. He preferred to write in longhand.
Though he had a typewriter, Baldwin’s preference was to write in longhand on a legal pad. “You achieve shorter declarative sentences,” he toldThe Paris Review in 1984. Editing was also a key part of his process. In the same interview, Baldwin admitted that his first drafts “are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. … You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.”
5. He abandoned America after his best friend died by suicide.
In his 1984 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 [died by] suicide two years earlier.”
Why 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.”
6. Baldwin played a part in getting Maya Angelou’s first novel published.
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 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.
7. 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.”
8. He wrote a screenplay about Malcolm X.
Baldwin was hired by producer Marvin Worth to write a script for a movie about activist Malcolm X and moved to Los Angeles to do so in 1968. It did not go well: As David Leeming writes in James Baldwin: A Biography, “The first treatment he composed was a manuscript of more than 200 pages that read more like a novel than a screenplay. Furthermore, his presence was disruptive, his working habits deplorable, and his lifestyle expensive.”
As Baldwin continued to struggle with the script, Worth brought in writer Arnold Perl to help. The studio wasn’t happy with the finished product, however, and Baldwin eventually quit the project altogether. He published his version of the script as 1972’s One Day When I Was Lost.
Baldwin and Perl’s retooled manuscript, meanwhile, was reworked into a documentary that, according to Leeming, was “screened and soon buried ... presumably because it was thought to be inflammatory.” That version of the script eventually ended up in the hands of Spike Lee, who put his own spin on it for 1992’s Malcolm X. (Baldwin’s estate kept the author’s name out of the on-screen credits.)
A copy of one of Baldwin’s scripts, written in longhand, was acquired by the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2017. The library has three of Baldwin’s solo manuscripts for the project as well as Baldwin and Perl’s screenplay.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2023.