James Baldwin

James Baldwin

"Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced" - James Baldwin

Illustration by Alison Farrell

Illustration by Alison Farrell

James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York City. His mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug addiction and remarried a preacher named David Baldwin. The family was very poor and James spent most of his young life caring for his younger brothers and sisters.

When he was a teenager, Baldwin experienced racial harassment when he was teased and abused by two NYPD officers. He later compared this experience to the harsh treatment he received from his adoptive father. On his 19th birthday, his father died of tuberculosis — the same day as the Harlem Riot of 1943. He wrote about the riots in his essays and used the experience to explain family and social rejections to attain a sense of selfhood. This would become a consistent theme in his writings.

At age 24, Baldwin left the United States to escape American prejudice and the hopelessness he felt as a young, black man in New York. He also struggled with his the confusion he felt as a young, gay man and hoped to become comfortable with his own sexuality. He settled in Paris and quickly adjusted to the new environment. He enjoyed the radical culture of the Left Bank and was able to develop his literary voice in a new context.

Baldwin published several essays and experimented with writing plays and poetry. In 1953, he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain. Two years later, he published his collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin did his best to avoid labels and defy public expectations that his work would center on the African-American experience. His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was controversial because of the homoerotic content and surprising because it portrayal of white characters.

Baldwin returned to the United States in 1957 and became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. He took a job with the Partisan Review and began reporting on what was happening in the south. He interviewed people in Montgomery and Charlotte, where he met Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin’s articles also appeared in Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker. In 1963, his articles caught the attention of Time Magazine and landed him on the cover.

Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He toured the country where he appeared on television and spoke at college campuses about the restive Civil Rights movement. He became a known spokesperson for the movement and a celebrity noted as a champion for the cause.

Baldwin eventually moved back to France, but his essays never stopped articulating the anger and frustration felt by black Americans. He always remained true to his own convictions and became the leading literary vice of the civil rights movement.


"An insightful essayist, novelist, poet and playwright, James Baldwin was gay and black at a time when neither were accepted. Baldwin's writing continues to dismantle assumptions and defend equal rights." - Alison Farrell


The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is America's premier legal organization fighting for racial justice. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfills the promise of equality for all Americans. LDF works both through the courts and through advocacy to the executive and legislative branches, educational outreach, monitoring of federal and state government activity, coalition building and policy research. Additionally, through its scholarship, fellowship, and internship programs, LDF helps students to attend and graduate from many of the nation’s best colleges, universities, and law schools and to develop a lasting commitment to racial justice and public service.

Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson

Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson

Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage