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Born on the 24th of August 1924 James Baldwin was an American author who dedicated his life to writing numerous novels. Baldwin, who died on the 1st of December 1987 did a lot to enlighten people on various social issues through his writing and advocacy hence enriching their lives. He was born in the United States of America in Harlem and lived 63 years as a writer, poet, novelist, playwright, and most importantly, an activist. He led a busy life since he was often occupied with writing. He wrote birth fictional and nonfictional novels and stories. Some of the people whom he viewed as role models during his literal career included Henry James, Elia Kazan, Richard Wright, Miles Davies among many others (Baldwin 337). Upon his death, Baldwin left a legacy and numerous admirers as is expected of any successful man. Some of the people who drew inspiration from Baldwin included Spike Lee, Toni Morisson, Bell Hooks among many others.
James Arthur Baldwin’s bibliography can be divided into several sections which include early life, literacy works, social and political activism, inspiration and relationships, and, finally, death and legacy. Baldwin was the son of Emma Berdis Jones. His father was a drug abuser. This habit led to Baldwin’s parents’ divorce which saw James’ mother remarry later when she moved to Harlem. The second husband was the complete opposite of the first one since he was a pastor. The second husband’s name was David Baldwin. After remarrying Baldwin’s family lived in slums of Harlem in the United States of America. There the family lived am extremely poor life (Baldwin 337). This made James Baldwin responsible to look after his siblings while his parents went out to earn a living. David Baldwin, the step father, was overly harsh and did not let James engage in any other activities as he expected him to be a care-taker for other kids.
In 1943, before James turned 19, his step father died. James actually turned 19 on the burial day and his mother too gave birth to the child, who became the last born. During the burial day, there was a riot. It motivated James to use his literal talent to address social and family related issues. This could have not happened if James had not attended school. It is known that school was the place where writers were trained on how to pass relevant information to society.
De Witt Clinton was a prestigious school that James Baldwin attended. In this school the majority of students were Jewish. It is in this same school that James Baldwin created a school magazine alongside Richard Avedon. The fact that James Baldwin’s father was a church minister contributed to his admission to the Pentecostal church and later his appointment as a preacher at the age of 14. This explains the saying “as is the father, so is the son”.
When James Baldwin turned 17, his view on Christianity changed and he began to think of it as falsely based. His experiences and activities in the church, however, increased his desire to write and reach out to people in a society. There came a time when he wanted to leave Christianity. This could have been blamed on the fact that he was communicating closely with Elijah Muhammud. Elijah was a staunch Muslim who held hard stance against Christianity and had no tolerance towards this faith. James Baldwin himself criticized Christianity for supporting slavery and slave trade. He, however, contradicted himself by approving that Christianity was helping blacks to fight against racism.
When James Baldwin was 15 years old, his friend Emile Capuoya, who also attended De Witt Clinton High School, left school and went to study to Greenwich Village. Moreover, she asked her friend James to join her. While studying at the new school James got an adviser. The adviser was an artist at that school and he helped James develop his career ambition (Baldwin 79). When he lived in Greenwich, Baldwin took odd jobs and wrote essays and short stories during his free time, for example, “Notes of a Native Son”.
During his period in Greenwich and life in Harlem, Baldwin realized his homosexuality. In1948 he decided to move to another country where he would not experience prejudice against homosexuals. Eventually, he goes to France to make his writings and life go beyond African and American context. He desires to live his life freely without any interruptions from the people to whom he was subjected back in America. When he got to Paris, right away he became involved in various cultural activities of an organization called the Left Bank. He started publishing his works in Paris. James Baldwin spent most of his time in Paris. However, he also went to either Turkey or Switzerland to take part in cultural activities. His first novel was published in 1953 and was called “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. It was semi-autobiographical. Baldwin wrote many articles, novels, essays, and short stories among other fictional and non-fictional works.
Baldwin’s writings that were published between 1970s and 1980s have been greatly ignored and deeply criticized by critics. The latter tend to argue that his books dwelt on issues which were not important or did not address a variety of themes properly. Additionally, Baldwin used his writings to agitate for and influence the rights of those who were oppressed. In this way he encouraged leaders of the day to solve various problems in lives of people who were concerned. In 1957 James Baldwin returned to US. This was the time when the Civil Rights Act was being discussed in the parliament. It reached a time when Baldwin was forced by the situation to report on what was happening in South America. Despite the fact that at first he was nervous, soon he gained courage to continue and finish his mission.
Since he was a member of the revolution group, Baldwin decided to join the congress of social equality. He was surrounded by people whom he truly adored and hence looked at them as his sources of inspiration. He viewed them as his idols. Beauford Delaney was among these people, whom Baldwin referred to as his first role model in his article “The Price of the Ticket in 1985”. He also acknowledging his best friend Richard Wright by calling him “the greatest black writer in the world”. This helped him to secure a writing award.
Death always comes unexpectedly simply because it is a final stage that marks the end of our lives (Foucault 215). James Baldwin passed away on first day of December 1987. The cause of death was stomach cancer. Baldwin died in France at a place called Saint-Paul-de-Vence. He later was buried in the Hartsdale cemetery in the US. This marked the end of the life of the famous activist and writer. This was a big shock to the writing world because Baldwin was a hero, an icon, and an inspiration to other people to generate fresh ideas through writing. His hard work, determination, and dedication earned him a great number of followers, critics, admirers, and fellow writers who looked at him as their role model.
Major Works and Themes
Institutional oppression as the Nemesis of human equality. The institutional oppression as the Nemesis of the human equality focused attention on the theme of love which is present in all of Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction. Angelo Robinson states that “When Baldwin left the church at age 17 so that to ‘continue his ministry’ as a preacher without a church, he continued to declare a message of love for the body and the soul. His final wish for mankind is a testament to his belief as he continued to advocate for a society filled with Christian love” (2005, 349).
Baldwin treasured the high value on love both within communities and within individuals. He also decries oppression that appears as a result of force which makes existence of love impossible. Baldwin’s approach showed the way in which oppression hindered love. This showed in the life of his step-father David Baldwin, who was a factory worker and a clergyman. While living with the ethnic oppression of his era he “claimed to be proud of his blackness but [who knew that] it had been the cause of much humiliation and had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.”
There is a feeling of bitterness which developed in response to a life of constant humiliation and which has desolated James’ stepfather. Baldwin claimed that his step-father was incapable of properly expressing the love to his children. Whenever he took one of his children on his knee to play, the child always began to cry and was fretful. The moment he tried to assist one of them with their homework tension which was caused by made their tongues and minds become paralyzed. This made step-father angry, but children did not know why they were punished. Baldwin continues “If it ever entered his head to bring a surprise home for his children, it was, almost unfailingly, the wrong surprise and even the big watermelons he often brought home in his back in the summertime led to the most appalling scenes” (“Notes of a Native Son” 1955, 129). However, Baldwin was able to learn from his father and from many other people that bitterness was a frequent response to the oppression which left individuals unable to love others and themselves.
For instance, the theme of oppression was integral in his dialogue of love. Additionally, Baldwin argues that oppression is mainly a demonstration of institutions. For example in America where oppression tends to be fuelled by ethnic animosities “there is simply no alternative of a change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure” (“Down at the Cross” 1963, 370).
James Baldwin states that Christian church created theological and philosophical frameworks that other institutions have been using to initiate and endorse oppressive practices. Evidence that shows Christian origins of western institutional practices lies in the fact that Christian Church is the primary power structure in the West. Baldwin writes: “The Christian Church still rules this world; it has the power, to change the structure of South Africa. It has the power if it will, to prevent the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It has the power, if it will, to force my government to cease dropping bombs in Southeast Asia” (“White Racism or World Community” 1968, 441).
Despite having worldwide authority, Baldwin says that the Church has often neglected the real foundation of its power and the teachings of Christ. It opted to grab social and political power. In order to attain this, it misused Christian policy to change it from a philosophical system which assumes that every person has an innate humanity into a philosophical organization which dictates human values. In this way it endorses negative response about certain groups from social and political systems, hence making them oppressed and marginalized class of the society.
Critical Reception and Reputation
After Baldwin published his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 1953 he set a certain level of expectations to his readers. The book is characterized by psychological depth. It is full of considerations for Christian centrality in regard to African American life experiences as well as its emotional honesty. This novel was a complete contrast of Richard Wright’s novel“Native Son”as well as Ralph Ellison’s book “InvisibleMan”.
In his second novel Baldwin illustrated his defiance to redo his first novel. The setting of the novel was in Paris and included a small number of black characters. He conducted a comprehensive study on the various ways in which the society enforced values and morals, most specifically values on sexuality. Baldwin’s novel is an example of existential classical novel. The protagonist in the novel suffers ethical dilemma whatever choice he makes, he will have to suffer for it eternally. The novel became an important part of gay literature history. This was an opposite of what his readers had anticipated for.
Baldwin had a commitment to experimenting and making changes. His reputation in the early years of his work was established at the time he fought against renowned literary giants. Baldwin criticized “Native Son” in the essay “Many Thousands Gone”. He said that the book did not humanize the antihero Bigger Thomas. However, Richard Wright, the author of the novel, thought that essay attacks were uncalled for. He thought that Baldwin used the essay to announce his presence in the literary world and viewed it as an attempt to alienate other readers. He attacked “Native Son”becausemany readers perceived it as the breakthrough for African American literature.
The battle between Baldwin and Wright was overblown and led to a series of scandals involving Norman Mailer as well as Langston Hughes. Baldwin ran afoul with some activists of Black Power for befriending William Styron. William Styron wrote a novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner”in 1967 which had made many African American authors as well as activists angry. Eldridge Cleaver wrote a manifesto on Black Power known as “Soul on Ice” where he criticized Baldwin saying that he had displayed “the most shameful, fanatical, fawning, sycophantic love of the whites that one can find in the writing of any black American writer of note in our time”. Cleaver’s attacks on Baldwin indicated that there was a radical division within the community of African Americans. The turbulence of the time coupled with emotional volatility significantly affected Baldwin.
Baldwin went into exile. This has significant impact on his work. At this period activism took centre stage. At the time of his return to America, Baldwin witnessed high levels of activism and numerous protests (Foucault 215). He was an effective speaker and articulated for the rights of African Americans. His feature on Time Magazine in May 1963 helped solidify his reputation. The article described Baldwin by saying “in the US today there is not another writer—white or black—who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South”.
Baldwin’s third novel “Another Country”was more successful as compared to the sales of the previous books. Its reviews were characterized by mixed reactions. This book was one of his best pieces of work during his lifetime. The feature of the novel in the US magazine served as a wakeup call for white readers to pass the message of changing times that were not previously anticipated. Robert Bone reviewed the work of Baldwin. Bone describes Baldwin as “the most important Negro writer to emerge during the last decade”. Bone might have, however, introduced the trend for criticism of Baldwin that persisted for decades. He instigated the notion that Baldwin’s earlier works were superior to the later works.