feature: james baldwin

January 30, 2014

On August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was born in the neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. As a teenager, he took after his stepfather and became a preacher, learning early on the power of his voice. Upon leaving the church at 18 he also left the City, moving to New Jersey for a short period working for the railroad before returning to live in Greenwich Village, writing book reviews. Throughout much of the 50s Baldwin traveled between Europe and the United States, completing a number of his most influential works. Included: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son (1955). In the early 60s he returned to the U.S. at the height of the civil rights movement, producing the book of essays The Fire Next Time (1963).

By: Justin Allen, AFROPUNK Contributor

As both an activist and one of the greatest writers of the English language, Baldwin’s astute and honest observations on matters of race, religion and sexuality have stirred discussions both Stateside and abroad. To summarize his impact proves extremely difficult. I give you a notable passage on being the first Black visitor to a small village in Switzerland, from his essay “Stranger in the Village:

“I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment, with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.”

Today we celebrate James Baldwin.

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Biography information via PBS.