History 228: African American History
Dr. Jennifer Oast
February 10, 2012
James A. Baldwin
James A. Baldwin, a homosexual African-American novelist, was once quoted saying that the most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose. What it means is that society’s chief concern should be a person who has absolutely nothing to lose by always sticking to their beliefs, yet everything to gain. James Baldwin embodies that quote to the absolute fullest. Not only did he push the boundaries with his works in novels and articles on racial and sexual matters, but he also was a key component in the civil rights movement and that’s why James Baldwin was important in shaping American history. James A. Baldwin, born James Arthur Jones, was born on August 2, 1924 in New York City. James was one of several children that his mother had. His mother would go on to divorce his biological father because of drug-related issues and move to Harlem, New York. In Harlem his mother would meet and marry a preacher by the name of David Baldwin, hence were James got his last name. “David Baldwin became a center of conflict and understanding, hate and respect in Baldwin’s early life and in some of his best writing.” Regardless of Baldwin’s strained relationship with David, out of respect for him he would always refer to him as his “father” and not his “step-father. Growing up in the treacherous streets of Harlem was not an easy battle for Baldwin. “The oppression he faced the oppression he overcame, and the strength he gained from the battle was enough to break a man” Every single day in Harlem was a struggle for his life. Another example of how much respect Baldwin had for the man who adopted him, was at the age of fourteen he took it upon himself to follow in his footsteps and become a preacher as a member of the Pentecostal Church. Baldwin developed a passion for reading during his early school years and exhibited a unique ability for writing. While attending high school at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he worked on the schools magazine with famous photographer Richard Avedon. His explanation for being a writer for the school literary magazine, The Magpie was “I wasn’t a dancer, I wasn’t a boxer, I can’t sing. And as it turned out I wasn’t very good at carrying a mop. So I wrote.” He published various poems, short stories, and plays in the magazine and this work alone showed refined literacy skills. At the age of seventeen, Baldwin would also have already begun rough drafts for his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. After high school Baldwin had every intention of going to further his education at a college but he had to put those ambitions and dreams on hold for a while to support his family, which at the time was very poor. He would do any job that was offered to him, from laying railroad tracks down to working at various bars. Yet, while looking for jobs he encountered a great amount of discrimination, such as getting turned away from bars, just because of the fact he was an African-American. This would lead to Baldwin struggling even more financially. Three years after graduating high school Baldwin took it upon himself and decided to make a dramatic change in his life. He would leave America and go live in Paris, France. Leaving America made Baldwin feel free, something he had never fully felt in his life because of discrimination. Since the age of ten when he got jumped by white police officers, to not being able to find a job just because of his skin color had always made him feel trapped like a prisoner. “The immensity of this freedom, filtered through the blues of Bessie Smith, enabled Baldwin to reestablish contact with his past, his deeply buried experiences. It was this reconciliation which provided the challenge for the exploration of those experiences for the emergence of James Baldwin the writer.” In 1953, Baldwin’s first novel, Go...