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James Baldwin

1924-1987

 

James Baldwin was born in Harlem to an unmarried domestic worker, and rose from poverty and illegitimacy to become one of the most powerfully eloquent voices of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of fourteen he became a preacher in his stepfather’s Fireside Pentecostal Church, and though he left the ministry when he was eighteen, the style and cadences of the Pentecostal pulpit remained a feature of his writing for the rest of his life.

Through the intervention of the writer Richard Wright, Baldwin secured a grant which allowed him to support himself as a writer in Paris. From 1948 until his death he spent much of his time abroad, and the distance provided him with the perspective he needed to write passionately about the experience of being Black in America. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), drew on his experiences as a teenage preacher. “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.”

In 1956 Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room, one of the first American novels to deal with the topic of homosexuality. The narrator of the story is David, a white bisexual American ex-patriot living in Paris. Giovanni, David’s Italian lover, is condemned to be executed as a murderer. David is torn between his fiancée Hella and his lover, and his confusion mirrors that of many gay men during the 1950s. “But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” Giovanni’s Room was an act of daring, and drew criticism for its frankness — even from critics who only three years earlier had lavishly praised Baldwin as the new voice of Black America.

With the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin began to spend more time in the United States and he became one of the movement’s most eloquent advocates. His published political essays, especially Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963), are considered some of the finest in American letters.

In 1974 and again in 1979, under the auspices of the Regents Lectureship Program, James Baldwin delivered a series of lectures in Wheeler Auditorium on the Berkeley campus, and met with students, faculty and staff in a reception held in the Morrison Room of the Doe Library. The lectures were recorded, and are available on-line through the Media Resources Center.

Read (And Listen To) More About It

  • James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York : Knopf, 1953)
  • ----------, Giovanni’s Room (New York : Dial Press, 1956)
  • ----------, Notes of a Native Son (Boston : Beacon Press, 1955)
  • ----------, The Fire Next Time (New York : Dial Press, 1963)
  • On-line recordings of James Baldwin’s lectures at Berkeley: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/audiofiles.html#jbald1 http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/audiofiles.html#jbald2
  • Correspondence and papers relating to the visit of James Baldwin to the University of California, Berkeley, as Regents lecturer in April and May, 1979, CU-79, The University Archives, University of California, Berkeley
 
 

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Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of California. Email: benemann@law.berkeley.edu.