Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration not only of black people but also of gay and bisexual men while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956, well before the gay liberation movement.
His essays, as collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-20th-century America, and their inevitable if unnameable tensions. Some Baldwin essays are book-length, for instance, The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and The Devil Finds Work (1976).
Baldwin was born after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor.
Baldwin spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him—by comparison with his siblings—with great harshness.
His stepfather died of tuberculosis in summer of 1943 just before Baldwin turned 19. The day of the funeral was Baldwin’s 19th birthday, the day his father’s last child was born, and the day of the Harlem Riot of 1943, which was portrayed at the beginning of his essay “Notes of a Native Son”. The quest to answer or explain family and social rejection—and attain a sense of selfhood, both coherent and benevolent—became a consistent theme in Baldwin’s writing.
During his teenage years in Harlem and Greenwich Village, Baldwin started to realize that he was gay. In 1948, he walked into a restaurant where he knew he would not be served. When the waitress explained that black people were not served at the establishment, Baldwin threw a glass of water at her, shattering the mirror behind the bar. As a result of being disillusioned by American prejudice against blacks and gays, he left the United States at the age of 24 and settled in Paris, France. His flight was not just a desire to distance himself from American prejudice, but to see himself and his writing beyond an African-American context. Baldwin did not want to be read as “merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer”. Also, he left the United States desiring to come to terms with his sexual ambivalence and flee the hopelessness that many young African-American men like himself succumbed to in New York.
In Paris, Baldwin was soon involved in the cultural radicalism of the Left Bank. His work started to be published in literary anthologies, notably Zero, which was edited by his friend Themistocles Hoetis and which had already published essays by Richard Wright.
He lived in France for most of his later life. He would also spend some time in Switzerland and Turkey. During his life and after it, Baldwin would be seen not only as an influential African-American writer but also as an influential exile writer, particularly because of his numerous experiences outside the United States and the impact of these experiences on Baldwin’s life and his writing.
Baldwin influenced the work of French painter Philippe Derome, whom he met in Paris in the early 1960s. Baldwin also knew Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Billy Dee Williams, Huey P. Newton, Nikki Giovanni, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet (with whom he campaigned on behalf of the Black Panther Party), Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Margaret Mead, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, Chinua Achebe and Maya Angelou. He wrote at length about his “political relationship” with Malcolm X. He collaborated with childhood friend Richard Avedon on the book Nothing Personal, which is available for public viewing at the Schomburg Center in Harlem.
Maya Angelou called Baldwin her “friend and brother”, and credited him for “setting the stage” for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Baldwin was made a Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government in 1986.
Baldwin was also a close friend of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison. Upon his death, Morrison wrote a eulogy for Baldwin that appeared in The New York Times. In the eulogy, entitled “Life in His Language,” Morrison credits Baldwin as being her literary inspiration and the person who showed her the true potential of writing. She writes,
“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. ‘Our crown,’ you said, ‘has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,’ you said, ‘is wear it.'”
Early on December 1, 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, near New York City.
In 1992, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, established the James Baldwin Scholars program, an urban outreach initiative, in honor of Baldwin, who taught at Hampshire in the early 1980s.
In 2005, the USPS created a first-class postage stamp dedicated to Baldwin, which featured him on the front, with a short biography on the back of the peeling paper.
In 2012 James Baldwin was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.
In 2014 128th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues, was named “James Baldwin Place” to celebrate the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth. He lived in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 24.