James Arthur Baldwin was born August 2, 1924 in Harlem. He spent his teenage years in his stepfather’s Pentecostal church, working as a preacher. At 18, Baldwin left the ministry, but the rhythm and intonation of preaching followed him like a shadow, as Baldwin would become one of the most eloquent writers of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1940s, his teenage years began to weigh heavily on him. He often mentioned the feeling of “otherness” that comes along with being a gay black man in America or simply a gay black man in the world. Baldwin escaped the racism and homophobia that lived in America and moved to France in 1948, where he was inspired, and became a writer at age 24.
When Baldwin touched his pen to paper, he elegantly wrote about the complexities that gay, bisexual, and black men faced living in the world. As a novelist, he was able to capture the struggles that these groups face internally, seeking acceptance. One of James Baldwin’s most notable works is Giovanni’s Room. A story about an American man whose girlfriend flees to Spain to consider marriage. When she leaves, he begins an affair with an Italian man named Giovanni, who will soon be executed by way of a guillotine. Baldwin’s novel tackles the themes of social alienation, masculinity, LGBTQ+ spaces in the public sphere, and homosexuality. Giovanni’s Room was often passed up by literary critics who were afraid of material that dared to speak so openly about homosexuality with such passion. Those critics being the same ones who praised him just three years earlier for being the new black voice in America. Rejection never phased him, as it was only just the beginning for him.
“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”
Throughout his life he continued to speak out and create awareness about being black and queer. By the early 1960s, he became a notable spokesperson for civil rights. On May 17, 1963 he graced the cover of TIME Magazine and addressed the “root of the negro problem.” He began to spend more time in the United States and published his best-selling essay, The Fire Next Time, which spent 41 weeks in the top five of the New York Times Bestseller List, and it was the first to do so. He started to frequently visit college campuses and appear on television to spread his message on love, racism, and white violence. His most prominent appearance was at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963. There, he was only one of the two gay men in attendance. It is noted that at this time, James Baldwin was never in the closet or open about his sexual orientation, but the people who knew him best would say that he never had to be.
The world said goodbye to James Baldwin in 1987. But, to this day, we are still left with James Baldwin’s presence and he continues to inspire us all with his literary works. In 2017, a documentary was made based on his unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. The documentary, titled I Am Not Your Negro, is a collection of notes and letters written by Baldwin and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. Although Baldwin is considered a queer literary icon, his sexuality is often overlooked in history as this documentary fails to address his sexual orientation or his impact on the LGBTQ+ community. Despite all of this, his words have weaved their way through history and are not easily forgotten to those who can admire and appreciate his art. We can learn something from James Baldwin in the climate that we are in, now more than ever.