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James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, on August 2, 1924. His stepfather, a church priest, led him as he grew up in Harlem (Leeming 1). Since his mother divorced him when he was young, Baldwin never knew who his biological father was. As a result, he spent the majority of his time with his stepfather, who never showed him the paternal affection and care that he deserved (Boyd 4). Baldwin has had a lifelong passion for books and has aided his stepfather in church ministry. Baldwin went on to serve as a junior church minister in the Fireside Pentecostal Ministry, where he collected funds to migrate to Europe.
Notably, Baldwin began his writing career while living in Paris, France, where he authored his first book Go Tell it on the Mountain in the year 1953; some scholars and readers have argued that this remains one of Baldwin’s most compelling works.
Baldwin did not relinquish his American citizenship despite living in France for most of his adult life and frequently traveled to the U.S., particularly in the later years of his career. As an artist, he wrote in several forms or genre including plays, novels, poetry, and books analysis and reviews (Pbs.org). Studies have indicated that Baldwin remains one of the renowned authors who dominated the second half of the 20th century given his unique styles of presenting literary issues. His works played a critical role in the rise of American civil rights in the 1950's to condemn racial discrimination and other injustices against Black Americans and other minority ethnicities (Pbs.org). He continually criticized government policies that encouraged segregation between Black and White Americans in residential and access to public property and services.
Baldwin utilized his personal experiences to express to the readers the Negroes struggle to adjust to racial segregation directed towards them by their white counterparts (Sinitiere 145). Some of Baldwin’s books such as Notes of a Native Son (1955) enabled the author to put more emphasis on the racial discrimination issues in the U.S. in the 1950s and propelled him to the top at the same time. Baldwin's other work, Nobody Knows My Name, equally made him emerge as one of the leading voices in the civil rights movement in the U.S., which further reinforced his role in working against racial discrimination (Sinitiere 145). Markedly, Baldwin believed and championed the brotherhood saving power and believed that only Africans understood their difficulties and could use various approaches to extricate themselves from racial prejudice of the time.
Staying abroad in Paris and Istanbul gave Baldwin a glimpse and opinion on the type of life he had left back at home that provided him with individual self-determination to pursue his passion. Accordingly, he believed that spending time in another civilization allows an individual to examine their own and compare (Pbs.org). In this sense, his travels abroad gave a broader view of the social, economic and political problems in the contemporary American society. Consequently, Baldwin finally returned to his native home from the early 1960s to take part in civil right movements (Baldwin 30). He primarily concentrated in the Southern regions of the nation enlightening Blacks about their identity and the need for equality in the country. It is during this time that Baldwin wrote another book The Fire Next Time (1963), which was equally a best seller.
The Fire Next Time (1963) brought Baldwin a lot of fame making him the first Black American writer to appear on the cover page of Time magazine. Arguably, none of the Black writers of his time had expressed such poignancy and abrasiveness of the people of color’s experiences with racial inequality. In 1964, Baldwin wrote another play entitled Blues for Mister Charlie that featured the Broadway. The writer based the play on the racially instigated murder of some African American boy called Emmett Till (Pbs.org). Having worked very hard and witnessed a lot of racial discrimination in his homeland, Baldwin arguably seemed discouraged about the situation, particularly the excess violence coupled with the murder of his colleagues. The desperation was attributed to the killing of his friends such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. among others.
The later literary writings by Baldwin employed a more strident tone compared to his earlier works. He decided to return to France where he continued to work on a book depicting the disillusionments of the period from 1950 to 1960 (Pbs.org). One of the books, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), contained a lot of bitterness despite Baldwin's attempts to encapsulate most of the anger of the times in his presentations and wording. Despite the anguish, Baldwin always insisted on the need for brotherhood and love in the society (Pbs.org). Baldwin spent the final years of his life writing more books on various topics and genres. However, he also engaged in on-screen actions and teaching to enable him to associate with young individuals. Baldwin finally succumbed to stomach cancer on 1st December 1987 aged 63 years leaving behind several works literature with which people will forever remember him.
Major Works and Themes
Sonny's Blues forms part of Baldwin’s major works in which he employs imagery and metaphors to give the story its preferred meaning that sends powerful social messages to readers. The story ironically presents two brothers who ostensibly do not understand each other given the difference in their lifestyles and social statuses in Harlem community (Tackach 110). The narrator works as a teacher while Sonny works as a jazz pianist and engages in drugs sales and abuse at the same time; the narrator thus finds it hard to believe that his younger brother has been arrested for engaging in drugs. As a result, the occurrences in the story may appear a bit harsh but factual when applied in practical life situation. Baldwin strives to transform tribulations and suffering into attractive “blue music” which facilitates change between the narrator and his younger brother. The narrator manages to understand Sonny after he manages capacity to understand the music hence strengthening the relationship between the two.
The author has employed imprisonment as a motif to demonstrate the emotional and physical traps of the narrator – teacher and Sonny. Notably, the two brothers continually struggle to break from one bond to another in vain (Knežević 2). For instance, Sonny has been imprisoned due to drug addiction and feels trapped in Harlem and his academic obligations. The narrator, by contrast, seems caught up in Harlem against his wish; besides, he is attached to the housing projects which he hates. Although the narrator views himself as free compared to his brother, the narrator is arguably more imprisoned in his obligations and responsibilities as an elder brother (Tackach 112). Unlike Sonny, he has never made any attempts to leave Harlem and get a taste of the life outside of the place.
Many scholars suggest that the first novel written by Baldwin in 1953 entitled Go Tell It on the Mountain remains his greatest piece ever. Different researchers and critiques have provided various explanations and reasons why they think the book is important. Baldwin too once opined that the book remained his best and was the novel of his life, which he had to write if he was meant to become a writer. The book centers on a search for identity and self-acceptance by a young boy named John Grimes; ostensibly, John has a mixed perception of his individuality based on environmental experiences (Bentvelzen 4). The main character, John lives with a physically abusive stepfather making him question the meaning of their interaction. The episodes in the story closely represent John's life and his abusive stepfather.
The novel has numerous autobiographical nuances that represent Baldwin’s life during his childhood. Indeed, just like John, he grew up under the guidance of a step father – a church minister who used religion to quash his sense of self-awareness (Lamons 11). One of the characters Gabriel Grimes perfectly resemble Baldwin's step father's characters and can readily tell that the author tries to retell his past experiences. The search for identity comes in when John, like Baldwin, appears as an alien in their families and surrounding; they have a feeling that those around them do not understand them just as they do not understand themselves. According to Lamons (14), the dysfunctional relationship between John and his father Grimes further make his question his identity a matter that significantly makes him begin examining his past.
Baldwin argues in another book, Giovanni's Room, which an individual can only achieve self-identity and acceptance through personal journeys that go beyond movement from one point to another. The book discusses the challenges faced by various people particularly males who have questionable sexual orientations and identity. For instance, one of the characters in the book, David, seems trapped in heterosexual, straight masculine beliefs of the dominant society even though they do not define him. Many Negroes are like David who tries to run away from his past; nevertheless; the book suggests that an individual can only establish a coherent self and identity through self-reflection to develop inclusive personal and national identity (Baldwin 3). Markedly, this story also has a close resemblance to Baldwin’s life and struggles as a gay and minority in the American society.
The Fire Next Time is also another celebrated book by the same author; the novel has two sections, which explore the Negro problem in the U.S. in the 1960s. Apart from the problems affecting the Black people, the book examines other themes surrounding the inter-generational effects and association, and religious faith ineffectiveness. Baldwin vividly describes the black people' despair and disappointment with the American society and the suffering they have experienced in their hands. Different groups of the black population demonstrate various reactions to the oppressive and victimization nature of the Whites. For example, the majority of the Harlem Black Americans seemed tired and disillusioned while learned fellows like the author appear optimistic of changes. Consequently, the book precisely discusses the racial tension between White people and the African Americans fighting against discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality.
The author explores inter-generational effects and association through various characters throughout the novel with much emphasis on the first part of section one. The theme comes out through a letter apparently written by the author to his nephew. In the letter, the author describes the addressee as having close resemblance with his grandmother and father. The description implies that the two have a common ancestral connection and origin. Notably, the letter expresses the author’s love and passion to his nephew using different poetic language. Nonetheless, the use of resemblance the author warns his nephew about the White man; he tries to remind him how White people destroyed his ancestors’ religion and psychological deconstruction. Therefore, the author informs the author that these white people can destroy him in the same manner if he does not learn to deal with them.
Critical Reception of Baldwin’s Work
According to Tackach (110) Baldwin’s writings such as Sonny’s Blues utilize Biblical allusion to present a story with a close association to the prodigal son found in the scriptures; ostensibly, Baldwin manages to allude to the Bible because of his childhood Christian foundation. The parable as narrated by St. Luke presents a man who has two sons, with younger one asking for his share of wealth and then leaves for a far land where he lavishly squanders his portion. Famine later makes the young man come back home to request his father to employ him as a servant, but his dad happily accepts him and makes a party for him against the eldest sons wishes (Tackach 112). Similarly, Sonny’s Blues has two brothers; Sonny who has chosen a tumultuous life and the narrator who has decided to remain righteous, form a family and stay away from Harlem street life.
The narrator’s mum asks him to watch over Sonny; this implies that he should act like his brother’s keeper creating a responsibility towards brotherly love; “You got to hold on to your brother," she said, "and don't let him fall" (Baldwin 104). Tackach asserts that Sonny's presence, therefore, haunts his elder brother who feels he has failed in his obligation delegated to him by his dead mum to watch over Sonny (112). The relationship between the narrator and Sonny similarly borrows from the Bible in the book of Genesis in which Cain kills Abel and then questions God whether he was supposed to be his keeper. The two brothers have had strong sibling rivalry making resulting into frequent fights and altercations; “He came by the house from time to time, but we fought almost every time we met” (Baldwin 114). The narrator turns his back on Sonny and refuses to visit him or write to him in jail. However, the narrator finally decides to write to Sonny and visit him in prison following his daughter Grace’s death. He also welcomes him back home. The two situations presented in this paragraph closely resemble the Biblical narrations about the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel and Cain and Abel’s story thus allusion.
Another scholar, Oyigbenu argues that Baldwin succeeded in using revolutionary African American Theatre as a tool to fight racial discrimination and inequality between Whites and Blacks within the U.S. (36). Baldwin's approach and themes followed the strategies employed in Black Revolutionary Theatre that aims at unearthing the hypocritical nature of American values and what they purport to stand for as a nation concerning human rights and liberty. Baldwin aims at creating awareness among the Negroes on their rights as he says “I want to shock people; I want to wake them up; I want to make them think…" (Baldwin 237). In this regard, Black Revolutionary Theatre stands against any forms of literature that seeks to alienate an artist from cultural and traditional practices and beliefs (Oyigbenu 36). The genre aims at presenting real characters to avoid the façade of prejudice and discrimination that African Americans have endured over the years of full citizenship in the U.S. Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie uses these approaches to criticize racial discrimination in Southern states, which has persisted into the 1960s.
The play encourages African Americans to fight for their rights as Baldwin battles it out with the White man. The author acts like a preacher delivers an angry sermon and lamentation of the black people who are treated like second class citizens in a country to which they should legally belong (Kokkinen 42). Baldwin does not only condemn the White man or Mr. Charlie as most black call them; but also his fellow African Americans who have since abandoned the African traditions and fully adopted the White man’s ways. In addition, Baldwin uses his play to criticize Christianity and its role in justifying slavery and continued racial segregation and inequality in American society as Meridian tells Parnell, “You know, for us, it all began with the Bible and the gun. Maybe it will end with the Bible and the gun” (Baldwin 123). Indeed, he denounces Christianity and the way its ministers spread passivity and endorses violence in the last act; Baldwin wonders the kind of God that only loves Whites while supporting the destruction and suffering of the black people.
Robbin’s study suggests that Baldwin's works seem to occupy a central position in the contemporary society (4). Notably, the majority of contemporary writers borrow from his works when it comes to addressing issues touching on minority groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons (Robbins 2). The author further explains that Baldwin’s works still help in protecting minority groups in the U.S. Arguably, the works assist minority groups against domination and control by the dominant groups in the mainstream culture in the community. For instance, LGBTQ should have protection against verbal and physical abuse by the dominant heterosexuals in the community. On the same note, the works are still relevant in discouraging both implicit and explicit prejudice that has persisted in the contemporary society. Minority groups if not protected and made to feel accepted and recognized may develop a lot of psychological problems due to stress, which may affect their self-esteem.
Robbins further asserts that Baldwin's work continues to attract many readers based on their ability to address present socio-political realities (2). For instance, the society may invoke his books to discourage political abuse of power demonstrated by mass incarceration and cruel police treatment that affect the African Americans. Baldwin equally had the foresight to foretell the problems of identity that oppression and conflicts occur in sexually, economically and gender-structured society. One may argue that Robbins perceptions on identity and multiculturalism did match his time or the readers of his day looked down upon him due to his skin color and as a queer writer (Robbins 4). Some of the books such as Giovanni’s Room still prove relevant in helping many queer men to come to terms with their sexual orientation and live a healthy life. The book discusses various challenges queer individuals face such as social isolation, rejection, and stigma among others.
Works by James Baldwin
Baldwin, James. "Go Tell it on the Mountain. 1953." New York: Laurel (1953).
Baldwin, James. Giovanni's Room: A Novel. New York: Dial Press, 1956. Internet Resource.
Baldwin, James. Sonny's Blues. Ernst KlettSprachen, 1956.
Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time.Vintage, 1963.
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Baldwin, James. "Blues for Mister Charlie." Contemporary Black Drama. (1971).
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Studies of James Baldwin
Bentvelzen, M. E. M. James Baldwin: Dealing with the American Double Minority. BS Thesis English Language and Culture. Apr. 2012
Boyd, Herb. Baldwin's Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin. Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Knežević, Mirjana. “The Inheritance of Naturalism in James Baldwin's Short Fiction.” Facta Universitatis-Series: Linguistics and Literature, vol. 9, no. 1, 2011, pp. 41-46.
Kokkinen, Jari K. “Racial Discourse in James Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie (1964): Drama and the Hegemonic Struggle." Jyväskylä Studies in Humanities 194, 2012.
Lamons, Brent Nelson. The Internal Odyssey of Identity: James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and History. Dissertation, East Tennessee State University, 2006.
Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 2015.
Oyigbenu, Amirikpa. “James Baldwin and the Doctrine of the Black Revolutionary Theatre: An analysis of Blues for Mister Charlie.” Net Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 2, 2013, pp. 33-39.
Pbs.org. James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. Nobody Knows Production (prod., distrib.), 1989, www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-baldwin-about-the-author/59/. Accessed 18 August 2017.
Robbins, Ben. “Consuela Francis, the Critical Reception of James Baldwin 1963–2010.” European Journal of American Studies, pp. 1-6, European Association for American Studies, 14 Mar. 2017, ejas.revues.org/11969. Accessed 18 Aug. 2017.
Sinitiere, Phillip Luke. "James Baldwin: Biographical Dispatches on a Freedom Writer." James Baldwin Review, vol. 2, 2016, pp. 140-152.
Tackach, James. "The Biblical Foundation of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”. Renascence, vol. 59, no. 2, 2007, pp. 109-118.
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