Research paper: James Baldwin
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The author James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) achieved recognition for his courageous expressions of African American life in the United States. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was an autobiography about growing up in the harsh conditions of the black district known as Harlem, New York. Blacks were treated unfairly, from being slaves to not getting the same privileges as whites. He wanted to fight for equality so that blacks could live simpler lives. After following his stepfather’s footsteps in becoming a Baptist minister, Baldwin developed a passion for writing at an early age when he joined his school newspaper. He began writing about the racism and segregation between whites and blacks.
In 1948, after writing many controversial articles, he decided to move to Paris, where he could escape the racism and come to terms with his sexuality. After returning to the United States, Baldwin joined the civil rights movement where he voiced his opinion as a moral issue not just a political issue. “But the relationship of morality and power is a very subtle one. Because ultimately power without morality is no longer power.” He helped African Americans get through the struggles he had faced in his life. James Baldwin was an African American writer who, through his own experiences and life, addressed issues such as race, sexuality, and the American character.
Baldwin considered race the pill that poisoned America. “People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned.” (Baldwin, Stanley, Pratt 23) He felt abused by the FBI on many occasions, and wanted people to understand the inequality that he was personally experiencing. In the moving novel, The Fire Next Time, perhaps his most powerful civil-rights statement, he said that, “blacks and whites must come to terms with the past and make a future together or face destruction.” (American Writers) He started out as just a writer, but later became a reporter, defender, and reviewer of the Civil Rights Movement. His work publicized the movement and its goals, as well as the leaders and their actions.
James Baldwin was a civil rights activist who believed in nonviolent protests. Martin Luther King was a large influence on Baldwin and his writings. “Words like ”freedom,” ”justice,” ”democracy” are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.” (Macebuh 69) He wanted to make a difference and help people understand the hardships of being an African American at the time. Baldwin did not want to be recognized as a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. He simply wrote “to bear witness to the truth.”
Baldwin endured criticism for not only being African American, but also for being homosexual. His increasing consciousness of his homosexuality added to his pain and confusion. In his more controversial text, such as Blues for Mister Charlie and The Evidence of Things Not Seen, he insistently explored the interconnections between sexual insecurities and racial oppositions. Baldwin defends the naturalness of homosexual desires. He thought that hostility towards homosexuals and against different races was just a lack of imagination. “Outing” was Baldwin’s first fictional short story about homosexuality published in 1951.
In the story, two adolescent boys spend the day together. One of the boys starts to realize he had feeling for the other boy. He felt excited and confused. In the end we find out that in fact both boys have feeling for each other. James Baldwin used his own experiences and feeling to help other people relate to his hardships. Many saw his work as an attack on black masculinity. Baldwin’s supporters even turned on him when he finally came out about his sexuality.
In his later works, Baldwin continued to explore the questions and issues that he had interested him since his was struggling as a young writer in Harlem. In A Rap on Race, he once again talked about the destruction caused by society’s prejudice. “It’s difficult to be born, difficult to learn to walk, difficult to grow old, difficult to die, and difficult to live for everybody, everywhere, forever,” he wrote. “But no one has the right to put on top of that another burden, another price which nobody can pay, and a burden which really nobody can bear.” (Rosset 100) He wanted to make life better for those people who couldn’t change who they were. Baldwin wanted people to embrace and be proud of who they were and how they lived their lives. He wanted people to know it was ok to be born a certain color or lead a different life than everyone else. There are many other people in the same position that he was in who were inspired by his writing.
One of Baldwin’s most famous novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was also his first. This novel was well thought out, taking ten years to finally have a completed piece. He said that Go Tell It on the Mountain was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father…Nobody’s ever frightened me since.” (About the Author) The novel outlines his life as a poverty stricken homosexual African American. His character, John, mirrors the life Baldwin lived. This novel touches the heart and helps people realize how racism affected African American families. Baldwin gave a vivid description by using flashback episodes to recount the characters parents and aunt to his grandparents slave life. The novel is written in the language of King James Bible, and the Bible is a constant presence in the characters’ lives. A general biblical knowledge will help understand the context more. His most important reference to the Bible was the story of Ham, Noah’s son who saw him naked. Noah cursed Ham’s son to become the servant of Noah’s other son. James Baldwin always felt as though he wasn’t as loved as his younger brother. His brother didn’t have to try as hard to please his father.
There are three main issues the character has to deal with in the novel: a clash between father and son, a coming-of-age struggle, and a religious crisis. Baldwin had to deal with his father favoring his other brother more, and always had to fight for his father’s attention. He struggled with the thought of wanting to please his father vs. the thoughts of hate towards him. The character tries to win his father’s love by following in his footsteps and becoming a minister. Yet this does not change his father’s opinion of the character. The character is faced with being attracted to another male. He worries what other people will think of him and he feels he is going against the Bible. He struggles with the racism in his community and longed to be equal with everyone else. He felt that he was a black living in a white world. He was a gay man searching for his way in life. James Baldwin wrote to overcoming all the obstacles he feared in life. He faced his fears and tried to help other people overcome their fears.
James Baldwin lived in a time with lucrative amounts of segregation every day. His upbringing in Harlem really gave Baldwin a harsh reality of all that he would have to deal with for the rest of his life. Baldwin’s writings were very influential and inspiring, allowing the reader to understand how unfortunate segregation was for so many people. Through his writings, James Baldwin got to experience life. He spoke out and debated about the Civil Rights Movement and tried to help homosexuals deal with the hardships. He stayed strong and fought through all the obstacles life threw at him. James Baldwin wanted justice, not sympathy. Baldwin is still studied today and will always be remembered for his courage.
“James Baldwin.” American Writers. Web. 17 Nov. 2011. .
Baldwin, James, Fred L. Standley, and Louis H. Pratt. Conversations with James Baldwin. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1989. Print.
“James Baldwin – About the Author | American Masters | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.
Macebuh, Stanley. James Baldwin; a Critical Study. New York: Third, 1973. Print.
Rosset, Lisa. James Baldwin. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Print.