by Adrian Sheppe
Today few would argue that James Baldwin is an inspirational African American writer. But this was not always the case. Baldwin, like many an author before him, struggled to find his voice and sense of self. His quest for identity was complicated by the racist, homophobic era in which he came of age. It was only after he was able to come to terms with his racial and sexual identity that Baldwin was able to unleash his potential as an author. This process of self-discovery took him to Paris, where, freed from social constructs, he was able to find himself not as a black, homosexual author, but simply as an author. And while Baldwin was American, and squarely identified as such, we owe much to Paris for it is there that Baldwin became the writer we recognize as such.
As Baldwin said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use” (Thorsen). From his earliest days Baldwin was exposed to the power of words. He spent a fair amount of time in the library and read anything he could get a hold of. His step-father was a preacher and Baldwin later became one for three years. When his step-father passed away, Baldwin knew he had to set aside his dreams and become a responsible role model for his younger siblings. After spending a few years working with the railroad in New Jersey, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village and became a freelance writer. During his time in the Village, he met two very influential people. First, he met Beauford Delaney, a modernist painter, who acted as Baldwin’s spiritual father. Baldwin later acknowledged that Delaney showed him “how to see, and how to trust what I saw” (Elgrably). The second and more important figure whom Baldwin met in the Village was Richard Wright. Wright managed to get Baldwin a grant to write in Paris even though Baldwin had not published a novel yet.
All throughout his teenage years, Baldwin was aware of his homosexuality. But this was a time marked by racism and homophobia, and it weighed heavily on Baldwin. In 1948, following the suicide of his friend Eugene Worth (Reynolds, for more details), Baldwin accepted the grant and escaped to Paris. Even though he had only forty dollars and spoke not a word of French, he traveled to Paris to put distance between himself and the America he grew up in. He knew that this America of hatred and prejudice would not allow him to find himself, that in America he would always be stereotyped.
Once in Paris, Baldwin became active with the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. Freed from notions of who he should be, and how he should write, Baldwin was truly able to come into his own. He began to get his work published in a literary anthology called Zero which had previously published the essays of his friend, Richard Wright. Baldwin believed that “Once you find yourself in another civilization, you’re forced to examine your own” (Thorsen). By 1953, Baldwin published his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, which explored his childhood in Harlem. He left Paris for short periods to travel to Istanbul and New York during the 1950’s and went on to write two more very important books Notes of a Native Son (1955) and Giovanni’s Room (1956). These novels were not well received initially because of their risky subject matter, but they did challenge the way people looked at blacks and homosexuality.
While Baldwin honed his craft in Paris, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum back home. In 1960, Baldwin returned to the U.S. as he felt an obligation to the cause. He gave many popular speeches but quickly realized that the social order had deteriorated during his absence. Baldwin wrote many essays about the violence in the South, such as those in Nobody Knows My Name (1961) and The Fire Next Time (1963), which predicted black social revolt if conditions were not improved. Baldwin’s devotion to the cause was unparalleled, but the assassination of his three closest friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X proved to be too much and he gave up.
Disillusioned, Baldwin returned to France in the early 1970s. Although he spent most of his time overseas, Baldwin never gave up his American citizenship, and continued to believe in the possibility of change. And while Americans may not have been so quick to embrace him, the French absolutely adored Baldwin and in 1986, bestowed him with one of the country’s highest honors – the Legion of Honor (“James Baldwin Biography”). He died of stomach cancer on November 30 1987 in Saint-Paul-de-Vance, France, but was buried with his mother in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale near New York City. Shortly before he died, Baldwin sent a message to his nephew in French telling him, “This innocent nation relegated you to a ghetto in which it counted on seeing you perish, but you are home here, my friend. Don’t let yourself be chased out” (Reynolds). In America Baldwin had been but a black man, and as such his identity and sense of self were socially construed; there was no room for individuation. But Baldwin, who did not recognize himself in this externally-imposed identity, refused to accept it. He wasn’t sure who he was, but he knew that there was more to him than being black or homosexual. It was in Paris that he was able to fill out the sketch; it was there that this crude caricature acquired depth and meaning. In Paris he wrote freely, tackling sensitive topics, and producing seminal works. Without Paris, Baldwin might never have come into his own. His coming to Paris allowed him to express himself freely and write the groundbreaking novels we know him for to this day. There can be no doubt that Baldwin’s self exile to France and even the city of Paris played an influential role in shaping the work of one of the most gifted American authors of the civil rights era.
Elgrably, Jordan, comp. “The Art of Fiction LXXVIII, James Baldwin.” Paris Review 91 (1984): 48-82. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.
“James Arthur Baldwin Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 1998. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.
Reynolds, Michel. “James Baldwin (1924-1987), une voix afro-américaine universelle.” Témoignages, 28 June 2010. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.
Thorsen, Karen. “James Baldwin – About the Author.” American Masters. Public Broadcasting Service, New York, 29 Nov. 2006. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.