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I’ve always hear the name James Baldwin but never knew exactly what he is famous for. Baldwin is an essayist, poet, playwright, and social critic. I was impressed to learn he has been influential in the civil rights movement as a black man, but also as a black gay man. That is saying a lot for the time frame in which he was born. (1924-1987)
Baldwin was working on a piece titled Remember This House at the time of his death. The work included his personal experiences with the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers. The project inspired Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro. If you are into documentaries, I highly recommend you check this one out.
Born and raised in Harlem, NY, Baldwin grew up very poor, and the constant target of ridicule by his stepfather. His stepfather was a pastor, and later Baldwin sought religion as well. He later gave up Christianity and did not claim any religion as his own.
Throughout his life and career Baldwin sought to convey the theme of belonging in both family and social settings.
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His first run in with the law happened at age 10. He was racially targeted by NYPD officers, the experience set the tone for his later works like his most famous essays Notes of A Native Son. He was encouraged to participate in his high school’s newspaper by his teacher and took on the role as literary editor.
At 15, he met and became good friends with painter Beauford Delaney. Delaney played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance with his modern pieces.
Baldwin’s work is most prolific throughout the 1950s and 60s. Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone were all written during this time. His writing struck cords with the gay community because he was one of the first influential writers to include gay, and bisexual characters in his work. Moving to Paris at 24, Baldwin felt countries out side of the United States were less aggressive towards black artists, and especially one that was gay.
Baldwin spent much of his life being a voice for the unheard. Baldwin’s work is especially inspiring because he is the first of his kind. He overcame being black, being a black writer, and being a black openly gay writer. His writings reflect how alone he really felt in his world, which is really relatable for a lot of people. His work transcended through history because he was a pioneer before the gay liberation movement as well. I don’t believe his work was as appreciated in his time, as it is now. If Baldwin were alive today, I think he would be impressed and happy with the passing of recent litigation involving gay marriage/rights, as well as a black man being President. I however do know he would be outraged at the digression it seems of racial issues in recent news. Why do we even still NEED a black lives matter movement 67 years after his time? Baldwin would have an insightful essay answer as a response.
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