To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve created a series of book lists centered around important African American authors and artists to share each week.
James Baldwin (1924-1987)
James Baldwin – the grandson of a slave – was born in Harlem and grew up in poverty, developing a troubled relationship with his strict, religious stepfather. As he recalls, “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.” By the time he was fourteen, Baldwin was spending much of his time in libraries and had found his passion for writing.
As a Black, queer writer Baldwin broke new literary ground with the exploration of racial and social issues in his many works. He was especially known for his essays on the Black experience in America. Though his message reflected bitter disappointment in his native land and its white majority, Baldwin found readers of every race and nationality. Throughout his distinguished career he called himself a “disturber of the peace” – one who revealed uncomfortable truths to a society mired in complacency.
Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin always remained a quintessentially American writer. Whether he was working in Paris or Istanbul, he never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In numerous essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of James Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of black Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
Baldwin’s greatest achievement as a writer was his ability to address American race relations from a psychological perspective. In his essays and fiction the author explored the implications of racism for both the oppressed and the oppressor, suggesting repeatedly that whites as well as blacks suffer in a racist climate. At his death he was lauded as one of the most respected voices – of any race – in modern American letters.