Although he spent a great deal of his life abroad, James Baldwin (1924-1987) always remained a quintessentially American writer. He published 26 books, including the novels, Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Another Country (1962). He never ceased to reflect on his experience as a black man in white America. In essays, novels, plays and public speeches, the eloquent voice of Baldwin spoke of the pain and struggle of African-Americans and the saving power of brotherhood.
In the early 1960s, overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the times, Baldwin left his adopted home in Paris and returned to the USA take part in the Civil Rights Movement. Traveling throughout the South, he began work on an explosive book about black identity and racial struggle, The Fire Next Time (1963). It became a bestseller, and Baldwin ended up on the cover of Time magazine.
The American Civil Rights Movement was not really open to LGBTQ people. The only known gay men in the movement were Baldwin and Bayard Rustin. Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. were very close, and Rustin was the architect of success of the March On Washington in August 1963. Many were bothered by Rustin’s gayness. King considered being gay to be a mental illness that could be overcome. King later distanced himself from Rustin and Baldwin. Despite his hard work for the movement, Baldwin was conspicuously uninvited to speak at the March On Washington.
Baldwin was harassed by the FBI, with an 1885-page file on his activities. Baldwin had a contentious relationship with the FBI, blaming violence in Birmingham during the spring of 1963 on by cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover. Baldwin even taunted the FBI by saying in interviews he was writing a book about their operation. The work never materialized, but the idea sent the FBI into a frenzy as it tried to get its hands on a manuscript.
Baldwin and Marlon Brando enjoyed an especially close relationship for more than two decades. They lived together in New York City before they were each famous. Baldwin was the driving force behind Brando’s unabashed support of the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1983, Baldwin became a professor in the African-American Studies department of the University Of Massachusetts. He spent his final years in St. Paul de Vence on the French Riviera, where he left this world, taken by that damn cancer in November 1987. He was just 63 years old.
Baldwin had an astonishing list of good friends and supporters: Billy Dee Williams, Huey P. Newton, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Rip Torn, Alex Haley, Lena Horne, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg, and especially, Nina Simone and Maya Angelou, who called Baldwin her “friend and brother”.
You really need to catch the documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, one of the best films of 2016. Written by Baldwin and directed by Raoul Peck, it is based on Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. It is streaming on Netflix.