James Baldwin

August 2, 1924 — December 1, 1987

Civil Rights–Era novelist, poet, and playwright

James Baldwin

A prolific novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, James Baldwin contributed tremendously to American literature with powerful commentary on race and sexuality. His best-known works include his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, published in 1953; the 1955 essay collection Notes on a Native Son; and the 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room.

After a religious conversion at fourteen and a subsequent brief career as a young Pentecostal preacher, Baldwin abandoned the church; he came to see it as a “racket” and wrote of the experience in the short story The Fire Next Time, “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion worked.” Baldwin’s encounter with the hypocrisies of the church and his rejection of its teachings would inform much of his work; he concluded, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” 1

  1. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Vintage, 1992; originally published in 1963 by The Dial Press), 37, 47.

  2. All photos of James Baldwin courtesy of Allan Warren; used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.