James Baldwin
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b. August 2, 1924
d. November 30, 1987
"I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."
James Baldwin was an African-American writer whose novels and essays captured the conflicted spirit of late 20th century America.
It is often the outsider who divines truth most clearly. James Baldwin, to whom many doors were closed by virtue of his poverty, his race, and his sexuality, was a prophet and truth-teller whose writing searingly delineates the soul and image of 20th century America.
In 1953, the publication of "Go Tell it on the Mountain" heralded the debut of a major literary voice. James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel depicts much of the writer's painful early life. Like Baldwin, John Grimes-the novel's bright, sensitive protagonist-battles poverty and suffers at the hands of a brutal stepfather in Harlem. Like Baldwin, John Grimes becomes a precocious storefront preacher at the age of 14.
As a gay African-American, Baldwin struggled with his identity in a racist and homophobic society. His disgust with the racial climate in the post-World War II United States impelled him to move to Europe, where he wrote Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) and his other early major works: the essay collection "Notes of a Native Son" (1955) and the play "The Amen Corner" (1955). His second novel, "Giovanni's Room" (1956), deals explicitly with homosexuality. It was published at a time when few other writers dared to publish gay-themed works.
After Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957, his writings increasingly reflected his engagement in the struggle for African-American civil rights. He explored black-white relations in a book of essays, "Nobody Knows My Name" (1961), and in his novel "Another Country" (1962). "In The Fire Next Time" (1963), Baldwin declared that blacks and whites must find ways to come to terms with the past and make a future together or face destruction. His incorporation of gay themes evoked strong criticism from the black community.
Following the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X in the late 1960's, Baldwin became increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of a positive relationship between the races. He returned to Europe and lived out his remaining years in the South of France, where he died in 1987.
Baldwin received many awards during his lifetime, including France's highest civilian award, Commander of the Legion of Honor, presented by President François Mitterrand in 1986.